Washington gasbags should raise the gas tax

     The Schuylkil Expressway's overpass at the end of Waverly Rd. The superstructure was inspected and rated at 4, Structurally Deficient. (Nathaniel Hamilton/for NewsWorks)

    The Schuylkil Expressway's overpass at the end of Waverly Rd. The superstructure was inspected and rated at 4, Structurally Deficient. (Nathaniel Hamilton/for NewsWorks)

    Washington’s bipartisan refusal to raise the gas tax, and use that money to repair our crumbling roads and bridges, is a conspiracy of cowardice.

    Motorists are perpetually at risk; at least 70,000 bridges are currently listed as “structurally deficient,” or, as former Transportation secretary Ray LaHood calls them, “dangerous.” Indeed, the American Society of Civil Engineers says that Pennsylvania “has the highest percentage of structurally deficient bridges in the country.” The nation’s Highway Trust Fund, which for decades has financed major road and bridge repairs, is deep in the red and in dire need of new federal revenue. That way, it can start to fix what needs fixing (which is pretty much everything) – and create thousands of new jobs in the process.

    Problem is, the Highway Trust Fund gets its revenue from the federal tax on gas sold at the pump. The current tax – 18.4 cents per gallon – doesn’t bring in nearly enough revenue. Which helps explain why our roads and bridges continue to crumble. The easiest and most logical solution, of course, is to hike the gas tax. After all, it hasn’t been hiked so much as a cent since…let’s see…1993. And with gas prices so low – I saw $1.79 a gallon in Jersey the other day – this is an opportune time for a hike. Most motorists would barely feel it.

    But in Washington, a tax hike is dead on arrival. Actually, it’s worse than DOA, because the proposal never even arrived.

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    Here’s how the conspiracy of cowardice works: Republicans abhor the idea of a gas tax hike because they abhor tax hikes on principle and don’t want to tick off their tax-hating voters (never mind the fact that their icon, Ronald Reagan, raised the gas tax and softened the blow by calling it a “user fee”). In the House, budget guru Paul Ryan hath spoken already: “We won’t pass a gas tax.”

    Meanwhile, across the aisle, Democrats who recognize the logic of hiking the gas tax are nonetheless too terrified of push for it, lest they be tarred anew by Republicans as tax hikers – or, even worse, as tax hikers who want to meddle with motorist Freedom. In this car-dependent culture, could there possibly be a more toxic political label?

    That explains why the Obama administration has run screaming from any suggestion of a gas tax hike. Last weekend, on the eve of pitching his new budget, the president said: “My job is not to trim my sails and not tell the American people what we should be doing.” Then he trimmed his sails by refusing to pitch a gas tax hike. His fantasy, instead, is to refill the Highway Trust Fund by slapping a one-time tax on the foreign earnings of American companies – earnings that are typically shielded from U.S. taxation, thanks to various legal loopholes. But that’s another DOA idea; in the Republican belief system, corporate Freedom ranks even higher than motorist freedom.

    Thing is, Democrats will do anything to avoid touching the gas tax – because they remember what happened to John Kerry during the 2004 presidential campaign. The GOP put a TV ad in heavy rotation in Florida, claiming that candidate Kerry had “supported higher gasoline taxes 11 times.” The ad was a blatant lie (natch). The truth was that 9 of those “11 times” were parliamentary maneuvers on one measure – the 1993 gas tax hike, which in itself was a whopping 4.3 cents per gallon. The 11th time was a year later, when Kerry floated the idea of another gas tax hike – but he never pushed it, much less voted on it. But those nuances didn’t matter. Florida motorists saw “11 times” on the TV screen, and that was enough to start a Kerry slide in the Florida polls.

    But has gas tax cowardice adversely affected our everyday lives?  Consider this blast from the past:

    In 2004, Congress proposed a four-cent gas tax hike to replenish the ailing Highway Trust Fund, but dropped the idea when President Bush threatened a veto. In 2005, a federal inventory said that an interstate highway bridge in Minneapolis was “structurally deficient.” That same year, 2005, the Minneapolis legislature enacted a hike in the state gas tax (the first since 1988), earmarking the money for direly needed road and bridge repairs, including interstate segments – but Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a principled tax hater, vetoed it. Two years later, in 2007, the legislature hiked the gas tax again, and again Pawlenty vetoed it.

    Shortly thereafter, in August ’07, the aforementioned Minneapolis interstate highway bridge collapsed – killing 13 people who, until the moment of death in the river, had assumed they were merely commuters. Another 145 people were injured. I’m not suggesting that Pawlenty or Bush or any other particular politician was personally responsible for the disaster; I’ll simply quote a reality-based Republican congressman, Tom Petri, who said at the time, “People think they’re saving money by not investing in infrastructure, and the result is you have catastrophes like this.”

    I’ll put it another way: Our worst traits – ideological rigidity and political cowardice – are sadly symptomatic of a society that deludes itself into thinking it can continue to live on the cheap.


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