Running on empty: Save transportation — raise the federal gas tax

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The federal highway trust fund is running out of gas. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office expects it to be empty in August, during the height of road construction season and two months before the transportation funding law expires, putting 700,000 jobs at risk.

As vehicles become more fuel-efficient and Americans drive less, the nation must find a more sustainable way to pay for transportation needs. Until then, raising the 18.4-cent-a-gallon federal gasoline tax, which has not changed since 1993, is the easiest way to pay for road, bridge and transit projects.

The highway trust fund has spent more than it has collected in gasoline taxes since 2000. This year, it will spend $45 billion, while taking in only $33 billion.

President Barack Obama has proposed a four-year, $302 billion plan that would provide a more balanced and adequate transportation system. It would boost highway spending by 22 percent, with $206 billion for new highway projects, $72 billion for transit and $19 billion for high-performance and passenger rail programs.

Unfortunately, the measure relies on a one-time fix — vague and unspecified corporate and business tax changes to generate $150 billion. Neither Mr. Obama nor Congress has had the courage to talk about raising gasoline taxes, even though transportation experts and several blue-ribbon commissions agree that raising and indexing them to inflation is the only real solution.

The country needs to find a better way to pay for transportation projects. Switching to another funding system, however, would take years. Congress and Mr. Obama must do what President Ronald Reagan did in 1982 — raise the gas tax.


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