Discussion of a multi-year federal surface transportation program returned to the front burner in Washington in April as lawmakers focused not on how much, but on how to pay for a $500 billion bill.
We all agree that it will take a creative effort involving several different funding mechanisms to get the job done, but one thing is for certain - raising the federal gas tax is unavoidable. In fact, it's essential and it should happen now and not later. The current 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal tax dates back to 1993. It's obvious an increase is overdue. If it were raised by 10 to 15 cents, House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-MN) estimates the increase would generate $450 billion to invest in transportation projects over a six-year period.
Members of Congress and the White House have been dodging this bullet, albeit not the silver bullet to fix the surface transportation funding woes, for the better part of a year, and will continue to evade the issue of raising the federal gas tax until after the fall elections. Their argument is that it would be an insult to Americans during this trying economic time and would ultimately anger those Americans come election time in November.
Yes, we will need to consider other non-traditional funding programs, like public-private partnerships, establishing more toll highways and bridges, infrastructure banks, and more bond financing. We'll also need to consider funding mechanisms based on congestion pricing, high-occupancy travel lanes, and truck-only lanes, which was proposed under the American Road and Transportation Builders Association's Critical Commerce Corridors. Revenue generated under these specific proposals would be used for transportation improvements. The most likely or best scenario for generating more funding, beyond the obvious increase in the federal gas tax, is creating more public-private partnerships. But, increasing the federal gas tax must come first and must come now.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Trucking Associations support a gas tax increase if it expands and improves the current transportation system. Truckers would be willing to pay an additional user fee for access to truck-only lanes on our interstate system, and they could afford to do so if those added lanes reduce the travel time in transporting shipments throughout the country.
Finding the courage to approve an increase in the federal gas tax may actually help lawmakers running for reelection this fall, especially if that additional funding spurs employment back home. It's one of those glass half empty/half full conundrums.