Counties go to bat for gas tax increase opposed by Obama

Cash-strapped local governments would like to see an increase in the federal gas tax to pay for infrastructure projects, the National Association of Counties said Friday ahead of its annual legislative conference in Washington.

“It’s ridiculous that we have not had an increase since ’91 or ’92, and miles per gallon have doubled, and you have hybrids now,” NACo President Glen Whitley said during a wide-ranging interview with The Hill.

Whitley, who is also a Tarrant County Texas judge, said 2009 was the first time his county collected less money in gas tax revenue than it did the year before.

Valerie Brown, Whitley’s predecessor as NACo president, said increasing the gas tax could not only help offset infrastructure costs, but also help counties who are trying to replace now-phased out funding from the 2009 stimulus.

“That money actually provided maintenance and got us to place where people felt like we were a least working on roads,” said Brown, who is chairwoman of the board of supervisors in Sonoma County, Calif.

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President Obama has said he does not want to raise the gas tax with the economy still struggling. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood cited the high national unemployment rate this week when he was asked about the possibility at a transportation conference in Washington.

“An increase in the gas tax is not on the table,” LaHood said during a speech to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials in Washington.

“At this point the president just believes with the economy where it’s at, and so many people out of work, it’s very difficult to be proposing a gas tax.”

The gas tax is currently 18.4 cents per gallon, not including the additional local and state fees that vary across the country.

Rising gas prices could make hiking the tax a non-starter in Congress. The national average price for a gallon of gas was $3.47 Friday, according to the AAA Auto Club.

But there is a formidable coalition behind raising the tax despite the possible public uproar.

The AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce, at odds on most issues, have jointly supported increasing the gas tax as a way to pay for infrastructure improvements.

"Current revenue streams are not sufficient to maintain federal-aid highway and transit programs at existing service levels, nor will they be sufficient to meet projected future highway and transit needs," Chamber spokesman Dave Natonski told The Hill this week.

LaHood said Thursday that Obama would find other tools besides the gas tax to pay for the proposed $556 billion in transportation spending in his 2012 budget, a plan LaHood called “a big, big deal.”

Senate Budget Committee ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), however, told LaHood he was “flabbergasted” by the proposal.

“I just have to say that is unrealistic,” Sessions said. “If you can’t tell us what kind of tax this is, I think there is zero chance of us passing such a tax as this.”

LaHood told the highway officials that if there was going to be any big federal investment in transportation, it had to be now, because next year is an election year.

“Of our opportunities, this is the year,” he said. “If we don’t get something significant done this year, I think it will be very difficult. … This is the time to do it.”