With gas prices hovering near $4 a gallon, families are taking common-sense measures to tighten their belts. Carpooling, cutting back on driving and buying more fuel-efficient vehicles are among the solutions many Americans are using to deal with the pain at the pump and the havoc it is creating on their finances.
But as Americans cut back on filling up, the federal gasoline tax is no longer filling up the Highway Trust Fund’s tank. Since the 1980s, the trust fund has been funded through a national gas tax, which has remained static at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993.
Based in large part on the use of more fuel-efficient vehicles and fewer miles traveled by Americans each year, the trust fund has experienced a decline in revenues.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree that something must be done to restore the integrity of the country’s transportation infrastructure. But as Washington considers new revenue-raisers for the Highway Trust Fund, as we have seen time and again, some of Washington’s worst ideas can’t seem to be put to rest.
This is the case with the disclosure of recent Congressional Budget Office recommendations that would impose a pay-by-the-mile tax to make up for the declining gas tax revenue. Although the vehicle miles traveled tax has been shot down several times in recent years, the CBO memo suggests that this misguided approach is a viable alternative.
The VMT tax sounds like music to the ears of Washington bureaucrats and city dwellers — people who drive little and have access to a multitude of options when it comes to public transportation. Unfortunately, this proposal puts rural-living Americans, who have no other alternative, in the back seat.
For those of us living in rural areas, the VMT tax approach would be downright hostile to our everyday life. It’s typical for people living in nonurban areas to drive 100 miles to go to work, to the grocery store or to the doctor. It is not difficult to imagine how damaging this tax would be for rural America.
As the state with the smallest population but which is ninth-largest, my home state of Wyoming would be one of the hardest hit by a VMT tax. Wyoming’s most recent data report that on an annual basis, the average person in the state drives 17,735 miles, putting Wyoming at the top of the list in terms of miles driven.
Undoubtedly, the VMT tax was thought up by people who were raised east of the Mississippi and who do not understand the miles people need to drive in states west of the Mississippi.
Not only would the VMT tax unfairly target nonurban Americans, the approach has significant civil liberty implications and raises considerable privacy concerns. The CBO said implementing the tax would require the installation of “metering equipment in the nation’s cars and trucks.” This Big Brother approach would electronically track miles driven and report it directly to the government to determine the car owner’s taxes.
Like many issues facing Washington today, mission creep and redirected spending priorities are core problems for the Highway Trust Fund.
Federal gas tax revenues that are paid into the trust fund by highway users should be used for programs that benefit highway users. Currently, a portion of federal highway dollars must be spent on non-highway projects. When Washington shifts highway dollars to highway beautification and cityscapes, it takes dollars away from the maintenance and improvement of our highways.
Especially during these difficult budget times, federal gas tax dollars should be used for highways. States can and should have the flexibility to use state gas tax or other revenues for their states’ unique transportation-related needs.
While restoring a sense of fiscal discipline to Congress is a top priority, infrastructure spending is an important and necessary task of government. Our nation’s long-term debt requires us to prioritize and economize with every tax dollar.
Instead of imposing a tax that disproportionately harms rural Americans, Washington must prioritize and eliminate wasteful spending and give priority to the highway programs that are essential to the surface transportation needs of our states and our nation.
Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) is a member of the Appropriations Committee and serves on the subpanel with jurisdiction over rural development.
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