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Speaker signals he's opposed to gas tax hike

Speaker signals he's opposed to gas tax hike
© Greg Nash

Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerBoehner: 'Thank God' I wasn't in the middle of election Ryan delays committee assignments until 2017 Lobbying World MORE (R-Ohio) on Thursday signaled that he is opposed to increasing the federal gas tax to help pay for new transportation projects. 

Lawmakers in the Senate, including a couple of high-profile Republicans, this week indicated an openness to increasing the 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax for the first time in more than two decades in the face of rapidly declining prices at the pump. 

Boehner suggested he does not support the idea of asking drivers to pay more, even though he said passing a new highway bill would be a “priority” for GOP leaders this year.  

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“I’ve never voted to raise the gas tax,” the Speaker said during a press conference on Capitol Hill. 

“A highway bill is critically important,” Boehner continued. “It’s a priority for this year. How we’ll fund it ... We are going to have to work our way through this.” 

Transportation advocates have been pushing Congress for years to increase the federal gas tax, which has been the traditional source for funding infrastructure projects, but the idea has been politically toxic for lawmakers fearful of backing a tax increase.

Top Republicans in the Senate, including incoming Transportation Committee Chairman Sen. John ThuneJohn ThuneOvernight Tech: AT&T, Time Warner CEOs defend merger before Congress | More tech execs join Trump team | Republican details path to undoing net neutrality Overnight Tech: Big win for Samsung over Apple | Trump to sit down with tech leaders | Trump claims credit for B investment deal Senate Dems may block water bill over drought language MORE (R-S.D.), have indicated a willingness this week to at least consider increasing the gas tax as a potential solution to a transportation funding shortfall that is estimated to be as high as $16 billion per year.

"I don't favor increasing any tax. But I think we have to look at all options," Thune said in an interview on “Fox News Sunday.” 

The gas tax, which predates the development of the Interstate Highway System by nearly two decades, has been the primary source for federal transportation projects since its creation in the 1930s.

Receipts from the gas tax have been outpaced by transportation expenses by about $16 billion annually in recent years, as construction costs have risen and cars have become more fuel efficient.

The current level of federal spending on transportation is about $50 billion per year, but the gas tax only brings in about $34 billion annually at its current rate.

Transportation advocates have argued that increasing the gas tax for the first time since 1993 would be the easiest way to close the gap.

Lawmakers have been reluctant to take that step, however, and have instead turned to other areas of the federal budget in to close the gap. Critics say the temporary bandages are contributing to a weakened national infrastructure.

Congress had a chance to pass a multi-year transportation funding package last year, but lawmakers could not agree on a way to pay for more than a couple of months’ worth of projects, resulting in a temporary extension that only lasts until May.

The nearly $11 billion measure, which reauthorized the collection of the gas tax but did not increase it, was intended only to prevent the Department of Transportation’s Highway Trust Fund from going bankrupt.

The trust fund had been scheduled to run out of money in September without congressional action.

Prior to the recent decline in gas prices, transportation advocates had suggested that the recently completed lame-duck session would have been the best time for lawmakers to raise the gas tax, because it would be more politically viable. 

Lawmakers showed little appetite for tackling the proposed hike before they wrapped up the 113th Congress, however.