America’s pothole — the Highway Trust Fund

America’s pothole — the Highway Trust Fund
© Greg Nash

One of our county’s greatest conservative leaders used indisputable logic to promote raising the federal gas tax: “Our country’s outstanding highway system was built on the user fee principle — that those who benefit from a use should share in its cost. It is appropriate that we rely on this same concept now. America has been blessed over the years with excellent transportation, and this program would provide us with a means of protecting and preserving this system.”

Yes, it is true. Former President Ronald Reagan said that, and in 1983, he signed legislation to increase the federal gas tax by 5 cents per gallon. Voters apparently endorsed the move, giving him 59 percent of the popular vote the next year. 

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But just a few decades later, many in our Grand Old Party seem hopelessly lost on this critical issue.

While much has changed since 1984, most members of Congress today still agree that a user-fee structure to maintain our nation’s roads and bridges makes sense — at least, they agree privately. But our nation’s transportation policy is stuck, and Congress is lurching from one short-term funding patch to another, refusing to face reality: We need to raise the gas tax again.

The inaction in Congress makes it impossible for local governments to plan for long-term construction projects. Americans driving on the roads see the results every day: The nation is one big pothole. More than 60,000 bridges are structurally deficient. We’re falling behind international competitors making significantly larger investments in their roads, bridges, ports, airports and rails.

For decades, the nation has relied on federal gas tax revenues derived from the users of the system. Until recently, that system served us well.

While there are more cars on our roads than ever before, they are also more fuel-efficient. They are using less gas, which means less gas tax revenue to maintain roads that are seeing record numbers of drivers. The federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon has not increased in 22 years. The cost of everything else has increased since 1993, but because the gas tax has remained the same, it has lost more than one-third of its purchasing power. Funding for our roads and bridges has essentially been flat since 2005, leaving ample room for international competitors to surge ahead. 

Policymakers, leading experts and stakeholders alike agree: We all want a robust long-term transportation bill. And while there is a logical solution — raise the gas tax — Congress has instead set out on a hapless mission to reinvent the wheel.

There are a lot of problems with some of the funding solutions Congress has floated. Many of them are not permanent fixes. Short-term patches and fiscal shell games will eventually bring us back to where we are today — a Highway Trust Fund that is running on fumes.

A user-fee system is the most logical way to ensure permanent revenue for our highways. As conservatives, we believe the government generates plenty of revenue but spends too much. Citizens are rightly skeptical when they pay their taxes but cannot account for where the money goes in the vast federal bureaucracy. The beauty of the gas tax is that the revenue goes directly into the Highway Trust Fund, which is spent on roads and bridges.

Some opponents argue that the burden of an increased gas tax falls too heavily on those who can least afford it. To counter that concern, the Highway Trust Fund Certainty Act, introduced by Rep. Tom Rice (R-S.C.) and supported by former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, would moderately increase the gas tax and index it to inflation, while offsetting that cost with an income tax credit to cover what an average driver will spend in additional gas taxes. This bill will cost the consumers nothing.  

This is a revenue-neutral proposal. It does not generate money for Washington; it generates money to fix the potholes in your neighborhood. This proposal might scare Congress. But it is the right solution to a big problem. And let’s be clear about the alternative. If we fail to meaningfully fund our highway system, it will continue to fall into a state of disrepair. Our bridges will continue to become structurally deficient and unusable. We will fall further behind our competitors.

Congress is back in session and again debating what to do about a nearly bankrupt Highway Trust Fund. We urge our friends and neighbors to tell their elected representatives to support the sensible solution. 

Rice has represented South Carolina’s 7th Congressional District since 2013. He sits on the Budget; the Small Business; and the Transportation committees. LaHood served as secretary of Transportation from 2009 to 2013. He is co-chairman of Building America’s Future.