Congress is too gutless to raise the gas tax

     A structurally deficient Schuylkil Expressway overpass is pictured in this June, 2013, photo. (Nathaniel Hamilton/for NewsWorks)

    A structurally deficient Schuylkil Expressway overpass is pictured in this June, 2013, photo. (Nathaniel Hamilton/for NewsWorks)

    If you want to see Washington in action – or, more precisely, Washington inaction – consider its latest wimpish response to our infrastructure crisis.

    Since infrastructure is such a snore word, I’ll explain: Our roads and bridges are in bad shape and getting worse. More than 70,000 bridges are currently listed as “structurally deficient” – or, as ex-Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood (a Republican) calls them, “dangerous.” In fact, the American Society of Civil Engineers says that the state of Pennsylvania “has the highest percentage of structurally deficient bridges in the country.” Meanwhile, last month, an Interstate-10 bridge that links California and Arizona collapsed.

    For six decades, a federal kitty called the Highway Trust Fund has financed the repairs of federal roads and bridges. The Fund gets its money from motorists, who pay a federal tax at the gas pump. It’s a pretty basic concept: If you use the roads and bridges, you help pay for their maintenance. As conservative icon Ronald Reagan said, during his second year in the White House, “When we built our highways, we paid for them with a gas tax. It was a fair concept then, and it is today.”

    But last week, the Highway Trust Fund basically ran dry; the current federal gas tax – 18.4 cents per gallon – isn’t nearly enough to cover the mounting cost of road and bridge repairs. Congress rode to the rescue (not). The obvious solution was to raise that gas tax. After all, the price at the pump is low these days, so motorists would hardly feel a hike of, say, five cents a gallon. And besides, the federal gas tax hasn’t been raised since…let’s see…1993.

    Yup, 1993. So long ago that Lenny Dykstra was patrolling the fake turf at The Vet. So long ago that Prince was still calling himself Prince. So long ago that Bill Clinton was still eating Big Macs.

    So perhaps it’s time to raise that tax again? So that we’ll have adequate bucks to fix the roads and bridges, and keep us safe in our cars? Nope.

    The ruling Republicans won’t touch that tax. They’ve nurtured an ideological allergy to tax hikes; there’s no way they’d dare put a dent in motorist Freedom. And the wimpish Democrats dare not agitate for a higher tax, because they’re terrified of being tagged as tax-hikers. They well remember how John Kerry was hammered during the 2004 presidential campaign for having voted in the Senate for the tax hike 11 years earlier.

    What we have here is bipartisan inertia, fueled by political cowardice.

    Rather than seize the obvious solution, Congress is tying itself in knots. The Senate has offered to re-finance the Highway Trust Fund by selling off oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (oil that’s supposed to ease our pain during energy crises), by taking some money from the Federal Reserve (money that’s currently used to strengthen banks), by raising some custom fees, and by generally scavenging for spare change under the couch cushions. The Senate figures that this money can keep the Highway Trust Fund alive for another three years. It passed such a bill last week.

    But the bill is in limbo, because it went to the House. House Republicans obviously won’t touch the gas tax, but they haven’t come up with a long-term solution either – not even their own version of couch-cushion revenue. Bottom line: The two chambers kicked the can. Congress came up with a patchwork bill to keep financing road and bridge repairs…for the next three months. President Obama signed it Friday, and warned Congress that it’s nuts to fund roads and bridges “by the seat of our pants.” The new patch is the 34th since 2009.

    That’s certainly not the way we used to do it. Three Republican presidents have signed federal gas tax hikes – Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 and 1959, Ronald Reagan in 1982, and the senior George Bush in 1990. Roughly one-fourth of House Republicans voted Yes in ’90; half of them voted Yes in ’82. Reagan, to avoid the T-word, called the levy a “user fee.” He also tapped his communication skills, telling Americans that the gas tax hike would be “less than the cost of a couple of shock absorbers.”

    But by the time Congress passed the 4.3-cent hike of 1993, as part of Clinton’s deficit reduction deal, not a single Republican voted for it. Which means that not a single Republican has voted to raise the federal gas tax in the last 25 years. We have 70,000 structurally deficient bridges, but, hey, rigid ideology trumps dire reality.

    Actually, this is just a Washington thing. State lawmakers in red enclaves – Utah, Nebraska, South Dakota, Georgia – have raised their state gas taxes in order to finance repairs on state roads…without suffering political damage. According to a May survey sponsored by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, 95 percent of Republican state lawmakers who’d voted for state gas tax hikes during the last two years nonetheless won their re-election races.

    And the investigative journalism site Pro Publica says: “In Pennsylvania, which raised its tax by as much as 28 cents over five years, making it the most expensive in the country (50 cents) while providing $2.3 billion per year for transportation, not a single Republican who voted for the increase was booted from office.”

    But alas, few congressional lawmakers are willing to do the right thing, which is why the road-and-bridge crisis will be back in the news this fall. As Richard Hanna, a Republican congressman from upstate New York, and a rare voice of sanity, told Pro Publica, “You can’t run a country on ideology. These (roads) are public benefits.”

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