Raising the federal gasoline tax has been a goal of many transportation policy and industry analysts, though they sometimes roll their eyes when they talk about it or smile ruefully. One lobbyist describes it as a glowing ember, carefully nurtured for years in the hopes that it could someday spark a change.
There’s a growing sense in the transportation industry, however, that this year a serious discussion about higher gas taxes could be rekindled, though they hesitate to speak too openly about it out of worry that their enthusiasm could halt the momentum.
“You’re starting to see a lot more discussion about it than we’ve had in a long time,” said Brian Deery, senior director of the highway & transportation division of the Associated General Contractors of America.
The Highway Trust Fund, which pays for much of the nation’s road work and transit projects, has been shrinking as motor vehicles have become more fuel efficient, yielding less tax revenue.
Congress is in the process of working out a deal to shore up the beleaguered fund until the end of May. That would give lawmakers about 10 months to mull a long-term transportation funding plan that might, just might, include higher gas taxes.
A big change is the support that the idea has received from Republican lawmakers. Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, recently joined with Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, to suggest boosting the gas tax by 12 cents per gallon. That would bring it in line with where it would have been if it had kept up with inflation since the tax was last raised in 1993 to 18.4 cents per gallon.
Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., also supports indexing the gas tax to inflation, which would allow it to rise.
“Sen. Enzi believes there needs to be a long-term solution for funding the highway trust fund and all options should be on the table,” said his spokesman, Daniel Head. At its current level, the gas tax “can’t keep up with today’s need for infrastructure at today’s cost.”
Corker says there are other Republicans who share his views. For now, though, they are hesitant to come forward, he says, though that may change once the primaries and the general election are out of the way.
“There are a number of people that know it’s the most common-sense way of dealing with it, especially if you have tax offsets,” he said. “People, with everything that’s happening this fall, are not quite ready” to sign on.
Getting On Board
Interest groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO agree that raising the gas tax is necessary. The venerable automobile group AAA has become more outspoken in its support of a higher gas tax and recently endorsed the Corker-Murphy proposal.
Even the American Petroleum Institute, while it does not explicitly support higher gas taxes, is not dead-set against the idea either.
“We leave it to Congress and the president to set the rate at a reasonable level,” said API spokesman Brian Straessle, provided that the money in the trust fund remains “dedicated to funding transportation infrastructure.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.