Rep. Petri: Need for gas tax hike 'resonates'

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Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.) said on Tuesday that an increase in the 18.4 cents per gallon federal gas tax "resonates" with a lot of people involved with transportation funding issues.

Petri said while speaking at a "Safe Routes To Everywhere" event at the Capitol on Tuesday morning that lawmakers have heard from truck drivers who are volunteering to pay higher taxes on diesel gasoline to help improve the condition of the roads they drive on.

"When we had our initial hearing, the Trucking Association came down and said they're not in the business of raising cost for their members or making life more difficult for their members, but they supported raising the diesel fuel tax on the truckers because they wanted to have a first-rate, efficient transportation system," said Petri, who is a member of the GOP's leadership team on the Transportation Committee.

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"It would cost them if they didn't," Petri continued. "They looked at all the different alternatives as the way to fund the system, and they thought the fairest way would be to do that. That resonates with people."

The gas tax has not been increased since 1993. Transportation advocates have argued that it should at least be indexed to inflation; they say combination of cars becoming more fuel efficient and the tendency for the shipping of goods going down during economic downtowns has resulted in a shortfall between gas tax revenues and necessary transportation funding that has reached $20 billion. 

The chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), said recently that he was opposed to increasing the gas tax, but Petri said on Tuesday that "everything was on the table.

"We haven't raised it since 1993," he said. "We don't like it. ... We're looking for reliable, credible way of funding a six-year bill. Until we do, we may not have a six-year bill."

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected last year that a new six-year transportation bill would require $100 billion in new revenue in addition to the $34 billion per year that is expected to be brought in by the current gas tax.

The current transportation bill, which is scheduled to expire in September, contains only enough money for two years of transportation spending at a level of approximately $54 billion per year.

Petri said lawmakers were hoping to complete a new longer-term transportation bill by "sometime this spring" because a multi-year measure would provide more certainty to state and local governments. 

But Petri cautioned that it may take longer than that to win support for the kind of funding increase that is likely to be necessary. 

"It may not be by Sept. 30," he said of the possibility of increasing the gas tax. "We have to have a national conversation on this and the need, and how to tweak the bill to make sure people feel the money is being well-spent."

Transportation advocates have suggested that lawmakers consider switching from the system of the gas tax funding road and transit projects altogether in favor of a more robust regular funding source such as charging drivers taxes based on the miles they drive on federal highways.

The proposal, known as Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT), has drawn criticism from privacy groups because early versions of it called for the installation of transponders to measure drivers' mileage totals.

Petri said Tuesday that any change in the funding mechanism beside a possible increase in the gas tax is still far off.

The Wisconsin lawmaker said members of the Transportation Committee had more immediate concerns, like increasing the funding that is available for road and transit projects now.

"Maybe down, not in this one, but the one after this and after that, we can switch to an off satellite or a mileage fee rather than using fuel as a proxy, but we're really not quite there yet," he said.

"States are starting to work on it on a voluntary basis and we've had pilot projects, but what we're looking at is that the revenue coming in will be sufficient to cover about 60 percent of just keeping the current program going for the next five or six years," he continued. "If we want to increase the funding and catch up with what they feel is an infrastructure investment deficit in the United States, we have to come up with an even bigger number."

—This story was originally posted at 12:20 p.m. and it was last updated at 3:01 p.m.