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Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Editorial: Let’s not mortgage our roads

The public appears to hate a proposal to significantly increase the federal tax on gasoline and diesel. Comments posted at the end of news stories show mostly skepticism and outrage.

We understand the objections, but so far we haven’t heard a better plan than the one offered by Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut. They want to add 12 cents a gallon to the price we pay at the pump.

They recognize that with the fuel tax putting about $35 billion a year into the highway trust fund and the federal government taking out $53 billion a year for highways, bridges and other mobility needs, the fund can’t last the summer without major transfers from general revenue.

And as we all know, there’s no surplus money in the federal budget. Refusing to increase fuel taxes means borrowing money to pay for roads, or else ignoring the potholes, gridlock and decaying bridges.

Corker and Murphy want to offset the higher fuel tax with cuts elsewhere, so the proposal is revenue neutral. It won’t help with the deficit, but it will keep the user fee for motorists in line with the costs of maintaining and improving our highways.

Our biggest objection to the bill is that the fuel tax would be adjusted each year for inflation. That would put the tax on cruise control. It would go up automatically with no action needed from Congress. In times of very high inflation, you can bet that wages won’t keep up.

Corker and Murphy should remove that feature and concentrate on fixing today’s problem, which is challenging enough.

It is no surprise that President Obama isn’t supporting higher fuel taxes. He wants to increase taxes on corporations to cover the gap in transportation funding. That’s a bad idea with our corporate taxes already higher for U.S. companies than for their international rivals.

With U.S. fuel taxes substantially lower than in most other countries, there is no convincing reason to shift even more of the cost away from highway users. Obama is wrong that the traveling public should be heavily subsidized.

But there are plenty of other reasons offered to reject the tax. One is that many people can’t afford the increase, especially those with long commutes.

The tax, now 18.4 cents for gasoline, would go up 6 cents a year for two years. That’s a total increase of 65 percent. If you get 24 miles per gallon, you’d be paying one half of a cent more per mile. If you think that’s too high, consider that the fuel tax was last increased in 1993 when the average price of a new car was $12,750 and gasoline cost 1.07 a gallon. Adjusted for inflation, a tax of 30.4 cents per gallon today would be the same as a tax of 18.5 cents in 1993.

Another objection is that the government already spends too much and wastes too much. We don’t disagree, but allowing highways and bridges to become more dangerous is a terrible way to send that message.

Some people object to the use of federal fuel taxes for expenses other than roads, such as bike paths. They don’t seem to care that bicyclists, especially when they’re off the road, help reduce congestion.

A more principled objection is that all transportation taxes should be levied at the state and local levels, and the federal tax should be eliminated. That’s worth debate, but it won’t happen soon and might never happen. Meanwhile, the nation should not be borrowing money for highway repair.

Gallup finds that only 7 percent of Americans have a lot of confidence in Congress. A refusal to pay to fix and modernize the nation’s deteriorating roads would suggest that the confidence level remains higher than deserved.

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