Transportation advocates cheer proposed gas tax hike

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Transportation advocates, who have been pushing for a gas tax increase for multiple years, cheered the announcement of a bipartisan proposal in the Senate to hike the amount that is paid by drivers by 12 cents on Wednesday. 

Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) suggested on Wednesday increasing the gas tax by six cents in each of the next two years and indexing it to inflation in future years to raise $164 billion over the next decade to help pay for transportation projects. 

The lawmakers said amount would be enough to cover the $16 billion per year shortfall in the Department of Transportation’s Highway Trust Fund. 

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AAA Auto Club President Bob Darblenet said in a statement the proposal to increase the gas tax was long overdue. 

“Sens. Murphy and Corker have proposed a commonsense and fiscally responsible plan to improve roads, bridges and transit systems nationwide,” said Darbelnet, who pushed before a gas tax increase. 

“It has been 20 years since Congress increased the federal fuel tax, and it is time for our leaders to show the courage necessary to do what is right,” he continued. 

Lawmakers are facing a looming deadline for addressing the transportation problem before a projected bankruptcy in the Highway Trust Fund that has been predicted to occur in August unless Congress acts to stop it. 

The gas tax has been the traditional source for federal transportation funding since the interstate highway system – and the DOT’s Highway Trust Fund – were created in the 1950’s. 

The tax was last increased in 1993, in former President Bill Clinton’s first year in office. The yield from the tax has dwindled in recent years as cars have become more fuel efficient and U.S residents have driven less often in tough economic times.  

Lawmakers have largely shied away from increasing the amount that is paid by drivers at the pump in the middle of an election year until Corker and Murphy’s proposal Wednesday. 

The lawmakers said there was no viable alternative to fixing the transportation funding shortfall  than increasing the gas tax.  

“We’re losing hundreds of millions of dollars in economic productivity because we’re failing to invest in our nation’s roadway and rails,” Murphy said during a news conference. “You’re not going to find, virtually, any member of Congress who is proposing to spend less money on infrastructure over the next ten years.”

Corker dismissed a competing proposal by House Republicans to replenish the Highway Trust Fund by cutting the U.S. Postal Service’s Saturday delivery service.

“Only in Washington would you take money from insolvent enterprise to fund another insolvent enterprise,” the Memphis senator said.

Transportation advocates who cheered the proposal to increase the gas tax for the first time in 20 years on Wednesday agreed. 

“Our nation’s key infrastructure fund is rushing toward insolvency,” Transportation for America Director James Corless said in a statement.  

“Proposed short-term patches using accounting gimmicks have been all but shot down in both houses,” Corless continued. “Sens. Murphy and Corker are showing real leadership – as well as concern for their constituents’ jobs and safety – by championing a long-term solution that recognizes the gravity of the situation and addresses it head-on.” 

Even advocates for increasing tolling to help for transportation projects cheered the Corker-Murphy proposal, calling it “gutsy” to propose increasing the taxes that are paid by drivers in an election year. 

“We applaud Sens. Murphy and Corker for their gutsy proposal to increase the federal gasoline and diesel taxes by six cents in each of the next two years to keep the federal Highway Trust Fund from going broke,” International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA) Executive Director Patrick Jones said. 

The tolling advocacy group said increasing the gas tax and indexing it to inflation would still not permanently solve the problems with transportation funding in the U.S, however. 

“In the long term, however, the fuel tax is not a sustainable source of funding for highway infrastructure,” Jones said. “This was the conclusion of the two Congressional commissions on revenue and finance created several years ago under SAFETEA-LU and of numerous other studies.” 

Jones pitched tolling as a more viable funding replacement in the long run, noting that the Obama administration has already supported lifting a long-term ban on adding toll booths to existing highway lanes. 

Meanwhile, conservative groups made clear quickly on Wednesday that they are opposed to any kind of gas tax increase. 

“No worries… let’s just propose a $164 billion tax increase,” Dan Holler, the spokesman for Heritage Action, tweeted.

The Heritage Action foundation has argued previously that the funding impasse is an opportunity for Congress to remove itself from process of paying for roads and bridges altogether. 

The process of eliminating the federal transportation funding system that has been in place since the creation of the interstate highway system in the 1950s is known in transportation circles as “devolution.”

In lieu of the current gas tax system, in which money is distributed to states and local governments based on federal formulas, devolution would call for transfer authority over highways and transit programs back to states and replace current congressional appropriations with block grants.

-Alexander Bolton contributed to this report. 

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