By Keith Laing
The chairman of the House Transportation Committee on Tuesday ruled out an increase in the federal gas tax this year to pay for transportation projects.
Transportation advocates argue that increasing the federal gas tax from 18.4 cents per gallon would be the easiest way to shore up the trust fund that Congress uses to pay for road and transit projects.
He added that he was not sure there was enough support from lawmakers or the public to move forward with such a proposal.
The Department of Transportation has projected that the Highway Trust Fund, which is facing a $20 billion shortfall, would run out of money in September without additional congressional action.
Shuster is pushing for passage of a new transportation funding bill this year, and had previously said he would be open to any option for shoring up the trust fund’s finances.
The gas tax has not been increased since 1993, and its revenue stream has been dwindling as Americans drive less and choose more fuel-efficient vehicles.
The idea of increasing the gas tax to pay for more transportation projects has drawn rare consensus from business and labor groups.
The sponsor of a bill in the House to nearly double the tax to 33.4 cents per gallon, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), told The Hill he was disappointed in Shuster’s decision to oppose the tax increase.
“I’m not surprised he doesn’t like the gas tax. I don’t like the gas tax,” Blumenauer said in a statement. “That’s why I would like the phased in gas tax increase to be the last time Congress acts to raise the gas tax. But, we need something to bridge the gap until we get a sustainable fee system like VMT [Vehicle miles traveled] in place or transportation funding will come to a standstill at the end of September.”
Blumenauer said he is “glad [Shuster’s] engaged in this conversation” and that he'd be “eager to hear his other ideas.”
The current surface transportation funding bill, which includes the authorization of the gas tax at it current level, is scheduled to expire in September. The date coincides with the Department of Transportation’s projected bankruptcy deadline for the Highway Trust Fund.
The expiring transportation measure was passed in 2012. It provided only two years of funding, compared to previous five- or six-year appropriation bills, because lawmakers struggled to close a shortfall between the gas tax collections and infrastructure spending.
Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said at Tuesday’s event that the easiest way to provide the additional funding would be to increase the gas tax.
“Nothing is going to create the kind of money that increasing the gas tax and indexing does,” the former DOT chief said. “And then use tolling, raise TIFIA [the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act], do more TIGER [Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery] money, do all of these things. But only do it after you replenish the fund that has built America and put America back to work.”
LaHood, who served as Transportation secretary when Congress passed its last transportation bill, called the 2012 measure a “joke.”
"We need someone to step up and say we need a six-year bill; we need to increase the gas tax; we need to index it," LaHood said. "I would increase it 10 cents."
Shuster said during his remarks he was hoping for a long-term transportation bill as well, despite his opposition to increasing the federal gas tax.
LaHood said lawmakers should at least consider indexing the gas tax to future inflation rates.
"The idea of indexing is so critical to the future," he said. "If they'd have indexed it in '93, I don't think we'd be having this conversation."
Other ideas that have been floated by transportation advocates include replacing the gas tax on drivers altogether in favor of a fee that is paid by oil wholesalers.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who is chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said last fall that it was worth exploring the possibility of doing away with the gas tax after states such as Virginia had experienced success in making similar switches.
— This story was last updated at 5:44 p.m.