Key Dem says higher gas tax should be on the table for highways

Increasing the federal gas tax should be considered to pay for a new transportation bill, a key Democrat said Tuesday. 

Rep. Nick Rahall (W.Va.), the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said President Obama should be more specific about how he plans to fund a long-term transportation spending bill, and that raising the gas tax should be one of the options.

"We've not had an increase in the gas tax since 1993," Rahall said Tuesday during a speech at the Transportation Construction Coalition's 10th annual Washington fly-in.

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"Cars are more efficient," Rahall said. "They get better mileage."

But with gas prices near $4 a gallon, Rahall also acknowledged the unlikelihood that the political will exists in Washington for any proposal to raise the gas tax to get serious traction. 

"I know the political suicide, bludgeoning, any other other bad word you want to use" that would come from the proposal, he said to laughter at the Transportation Construction Coalition meeting. 

Congress is gearing up to begin work on the so-called Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, or SAFETEA-LU. A current short-term version of the bill, which funds highways and public transportation, is in place until September, but transportation advocates want a longer six-year bill.

The Obama administration has proposed spending $556 billion on transportation over that period, but hasn't yet said how it expects to pay for that spending.

The GOP has criticized the Obama administration for not suggesting how it would pay for its proposed version of the SAFETEA-LU bill, and Rahall on Tuesday said he agreed the president should be more specific. 

"We need the administration to come on board to help us with the financing issue," he said.

Republicans in both chambers have indicated that they do not want to spend as much as President Obama has proposed on the new transportation bill, regardless of how it's paid for.

One possibility, Rahall said, is indexing the gas tax to the inflation rate.