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Thursday, May 3, 2012 03:31 pm

Topping off the tank

Setting federal highway spending back to 1993

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As I understand it, the Republican position on gasoline prices is to save drivers money by refusing to raise the excise tax on gasoline that pays the federal share of building roads and bridges. As this will cause the road network to crumble, people will have to stop driving, thus saving them hundreds a year on fuel costs.

And here I was, thinking that road funding was complicated.     

One of the virtues of the state sales tax as a revenue-raising tool is that sales tax receipts go up as prices go up, enabling the state to maintain its purchasing power in spite of inflation. This is not true of the federal gas tax, which is levied on a flat per-gallon basis. The federal gas tax is 18.4 cents a gallon, and has not gone up since 1993, when it was last adjusted. Unfortunately, the cost of building a new road has gone up since 1993, way up. As a result, road quality declines in the most car-dependent nation on earth, while delays and repair bills rise.

Fixing this should be easy. Pensions get adjusted for inflation. Congressional salaries get adjusted for inflation. And the federal gas tax used to be adjusted too – four times since it was first imposed under the Eisenhower administration in 1956. Three of these adjustments were signed by Republican presidents, and all had broad support in both parties in Congress. Raising the federal gas tax enough to restore the purchasing power it had in 1993 would put the bulldozers back to work.

Alas, remedying this inflation-induced tax decrease counts as a tax increase in the lexicon of this day. The anti-tax jihadists among the Republicans will not vote for a tax increase for ideological reasons, the Democrats dare not for craven political ones. (A brave Wyoming senator – Republican Mike Enzi – proposed that Congress index the gas tax. Members reacted as if he’d tossed a dead rat on the table.)

The villains in the piece, ultimately, are voters. I am sympathetic to Republican complaints that Americans should start taking responsibility for the consequences of their decisions. Among them are people who choose to live 20 miles from their jobs and who rush to the polls to cast out any elected rep like Enzi who even suggests that they actually pay for the roads they commute on.

Wyoming has its Republicans; Illinois has its Republicans. “I think most people really want more of the money that we pay in gas taxes to go to roads and bridges,” said Congressman John Shimkus not long ago, referring to the fact that some gas tax revenue helps pay for trains and buses and bikeways. Most of the people that Mr. Shimkus represents want that, at least. His role is to represent the people who voted for him, not the people who live in his district, and Republicans don’t ride buses, and trains are European and thus suspect in the Republican cosmology. It is road spending nonetheless, because every person on a train, bus or sidewalk means one car that isn’t clogging the roads that good Republicans use to get around.

 Congressman Aaron Schock would render an increase in the gas tax unnecessary by – yawn – cutting waste. “Sixty cents out of every highway dollar doesn’t go toward actual construction, it goes to keeping the bureaucracy operating,” he says. I don’t know if his figure is accurate, although it sounds high. I do know that “the bureaucracy” plans and designs the roads and bridges and sees to it that the public’s money is honestly disbursed and that the public gets the best value for its money and that building them does not do avoidable environmental damage.

Ideally, any adjustment to the gas tax would be accompanied by a grown-up discussion about transportation funding in general. Mr. Schock also has urged that we fund a new long-term highway bill using new oil and natural gas leasing fees. Okay by me. But royalties on oil and gas taken from public lands amount to only about $10 billion a year; the federal highway program, when it last functioned smoothly, spent well over three times that amount. A five-year-old is more likely to buy a new bike with tooth fairy money than we are to buy a world-class highway system with fossil fuel fees.

Mr. Schock says the dilemma before Congress is how to pass a bill “without cutting infrastructure spending, raising the gas tax, or increasing the budget deficit.” This is like trying to drive to work without burning gasoline or spending time on the road while still making your 9 a.m. meeting. You can try, but, trust me, you will not get anywhere. And neither, apparently, will anyone else any time soon.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.

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