Senate to vote on ending the gas tax

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The Senate will hold a vote this week on a proposal that would eliminate most of the gas taxes that are paid by drivers in the United States.

A proposal to begin phasing out the gas tax, which has been dubbed the Transportation Empowerment Act (TEA), is being pushed by staunchly conservative lawmakers who advocate major changes to federal infrastructure funding.

The proposal to end the taxes will be voted on as an amendment to a short-term extension of highway funding, which is set to run out in August.

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The funding from the gas tax has been used to finance U.S. road construction projects  for decades, but some say it's time for a new approach.

The concept, commonly referred to by transportation observers as "devolution," calls for lowering the gas tax that currently pays for most federal transportation projects from 18.4 cents per gallon to 3.7 cents in five years.

During the same time period, the bill would transfer authority over federal highways and transit programs to states and replace current congressional appropriations with block grants.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who is the primary sponsor of the gas tax reduction proposal, said Tuesday that it would give states more control over transportation funding that they collect via their own fuel levies.

“Under this new system, Americans would no longer have to send significant gas-tax revenue to Washington, where politicians, bureaucrats, and lobbyists take their cut before sending it back with strings attached,” Lee said in a statement. “Instead, states and cities could plan, finance, and build smarter and more affordable projects.”

Lee has been pushing to eliminate the gas tax since 2013.

The vote comes as senators are scrambling to approve a new round of transportation funding before the Highway Trust Fund runs out of money next month.

The gas tax has been the main funding source for transportation projects since the interstate highway system was created in the 1950s, but it has struggled to keep up with the need for infrastructure spending projects as cars grow more fuel-efficient.

The current transportation funding bill, which is scheduled to expire in September, includes approximately $50 billion per year in road and transit spending. The gas tax brings in about $34 billion per year.

Transportation advocates have vigorously opposed Lee's idea to reduce the gas tax, pushing instead for an increase for the first time in two decades to help close the funding shortfall.

Lawmakers have been reluctant to increase the price that is paid by drivers in the middle of a campaign year. They have also been unwilling to cut back spending on construction projects in their districts, however, focusing instead on a temporary $10.9 billion extension of the current transportation bill that would keep the gas tax at 18.4 cents per gallon until May 2015.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday that he plans to hold a vote on the House's temporary transportation funding measure as early as Wednesday.

“We're going to have votes on the Highway Trust Fund before we leave here,” he said at a news conference. “I'd like to do it tomorrow or the next day.”

Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) are attempting to offer amendments to the House bill that would bring it closer in line with a Senate proposal to extend transportation funding only until Dec. 31.

The end of the year amendments would run directly counter to Lee's proposal to gradually eliminate the gas tax.