Raise the gas tax: Federal highway funding needs a simple solution

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With the Highway Trust Fund about to run out of money this summer, the Obama administration has sent Congress a four-year, $302 billion transportation bill that is less realistic prescription than conversation starter about funding road projects. One of its proposals will certainly have states talking.

The Grow America Act makes a suggestion that may become the wave of the future. It would allow states to impose tolls on highways such as Interstates 80 and 79 with approval of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Pennsylvania has flirted with tolling I-80 before, and the suggestion was far from popular. It was part of Act 44 passed in 2007, but the federal government would not allow tolling. Eventually, Act 89 provided funding to address the state’s crisis of deteriorating roads and bridges without the need for new tolls. For now, Pennsylvania doesn’t need to reopen this acrimonious argument.

The Obama bill promises $87 billion for the Highway Trust Fund, in part by reforming the business tax code. What the proposed legislation does not do is embrace the most straightforward and sensible measure: an increase in the gas tax, which feeds the fund.

Before the inevitable cry goes up about raising taxes, it must be remembered that the gas tax rate has been the same since 1993. It is set at 18.4 cents per gallon with the diesel tax at 24.4 cents. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that, if it had been indexed for inflation, the gas tax would be about 29 cents per gallon and the diesel tax about 39 cents. Every penny of the tax generates about $1.5 billion for the fund.

The reason the Highway Trust Fund is running out of money is because fewer people have been driving in economic hard times and today’s cars are more fuel-efficient. That’s bad news for the fund, but it suggests a relatively painless opportunity to raise the gas tax. Increasing the tax at least to catch up with inflation is better, for example, than raiding the general fund, which was done for mass transit at the start of the fiscal year.

But the simple has become complicated in Washington, where the most basic wisdom has been forgotten: You get what you pay for. By the end of summer, when there’s no more money left for federal highway repair, the conversation should turn to the obvious.

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