Last month, two Representatives issued a bipartisan call for a bill to raise the fuel tax.

Last month, two Representatives issued a bipartisan call for a bill to raise the fuel tax.

This week, the price of crude oil dipped below $50 a barrel and gasoline prices averaged a little over $2 a gallon. A new Congress just started its first session and it's facing a federal highway program that runs out of money in May.

Right now is a perfect time to do the sensible thing and raise the federal fuel tax, which has been stagnant since 1993. Since then, the cost of roadbuilding has gone up, while more fuel-efficient vehicles mean less money than expected going into the Highway Trust Fund.

In 2008, the Highway Trust Fund became insolvent and has since been plugged by transfers from the Treasury.

Congress keeps kicking the can down the road, and did the same last summer, when it passed a 10-month highway bill, continuing the gradual downward spiral of U.S. infrastructure.

The news has been full this week of stories about what various proposals and comments are being made on the highway bill. Infrastructure is theoretically one area of potential compromise between the new GOP Congressional majority and Democrats.

The Hill reported that momentum is building in Congress for raising the federal gas tax.

But it's going to be a very rough road.

Republican Senators John Thune, Orrin Hatch and Jim Inhofe have left the door open – or perhaps cracked is a better description. Some of them are calling it "user fee" to try to deal with the fact that many people hear the word "tax" and automatically stick their fingers in their ears and start shouting "la la la la la" like a 5-year-old.

"I would prefer not to increase taxes but to me, that's a user fee," Hatch told a group of reporters on Thursday, according to Politico.com. "People who use the highways ought to pay for them."

"I would prefer not to increase taxes but to me, that's a user fee." – Orrin Hatch

No matter what you call it, it's a tough sell.

There are many, many roadblocks to what should be a no-brainer, including opposition from swing-state GOP senators up for reelection in 2016, as Politico noted.

Then there's the skepticism, to put it mildly, of GOP leaders in both chambers.

For instance, House Speaker John Boehner seemed like he wasn't completely ruling out a fuel tax hike, but doubted it was politically feasible: 'When the Democrats had total control of the Congress, they couldn't find the votes to raise the gas tax," he said at a press conference Thursday. "It's doubtful that the votes are here to raise the gas tax again."

However, the Washington Post's Greg Sargent reports that when asked for further clarification, Boehner spokesman Michael Steel emailed: “The speaker doesn’t support a gas tax hike. Period.”

Even most Democrats are lukewarm on the idea at best. President Obama has opposed raising fuel taxes in the past, citing the negative impact on consumers in tough economic times. That might have been understandable during the biggest economic downturn the country had seen since the Great Depression. But with the economy unquestionably on the rebound and fuel prices at the lowest seen in years, that negative impact would be far less today.

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill), filling in as Democratic leader while Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) recuperates from an exercise injury, offered what Politico called "the most enthusiastic endorsement from a congressional leader yet this year on raising the gas tax."

“Now’s the time do it. But we ought to do it in a thoughtful way,” Durbin said, saying that lower- and middle-income drivers, who would face a bigger impact from the tax, would need some sort of tax relief.

Washington Post editorial explains why with oil and fuel prices now, this is the perfect time to raise the fuel tax.

Not only would currently low gas prices help minimize any backlash from consumers (voters), but the paper's editorial board also points out that "raising it now would restrain present and future demand for gasoline, encouraging Americans to maintain some of the resilience to oil price volatility that the country built up in recent years — and possibly even checking future price spikes."

Yet as USA Today reports, "The White House is declining to endorse calls for gas tax hikes to pay for new road and bridge construction, but will look at anything Congress approves.

"White House spokesman Josh Earnest says the administration wants to stick with its original plan to finance new infrastructure spending with revenue to be gained by closing tax loopholes that favor the wealthy."

Last month, Reps. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., and Tom Petri, R-Wis., called for passage of a bill to raise the tax and quoted from President Ronald Reagan’s call to do the same.

In a 1982 radio address on the need for the tax hike, Reagan said, “Common sense tells us that it’ll cost a lot less to keep the system we have in good repair than to let it crumble and then have to start all over again. Good tax policy decrees that wherever possible a fee for a service should be assessed against those who directly benefit from that service.”

Less than two months later Reagan signed the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982, which raised the gasoline tax from 4 cents to 9 cents a gallon.

Where, oh where, is that common sense now?

Author

Deborah Lockridge
Deborah Lockridge

Deborah Lockridge

Reporting on trucking since 1990, Deborah is known for her award-winning magazine editorials and in-depth features on diverse issues, from the driver shortage to maintenance to rapidly changing technology. 28 Jesse H. Neal honors.

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Reporting on trucking since 1990, Deborah is known for her award-winning magazine editorials and in-depth features on diverse issues, from the driver shortage to maintenance to rapidly changing technology. 28 Jesse H. Neal honors.

View Bio
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