Push for gas tax hike gets lost in hoopla

Transportation advocates tried to use the 20th anniversary of the last increase in the federal gas tax this week to raise awareness about the need for more infrastructure funding, but their message was largely lost amid the ongoing government shutdown.

Oct. 1 marked the 20th anniversary of the last time the federal government increased gas tax used to pay for transportation projects. It was hiked 4.3 cents per gallon in 1993 under former President Bill Clinton, which brought the federal government’s take on gas purchases to 18.4 cents per gallon.

{mosads}The American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) argues that only brings in about $35 billion per year, which they say is not enough in today’s dollars to keep up with the demand for improvements.

“Federal dollars provide 30 to 70 percent of every state’s capital investment in highway, bridge and transit projects annually,” the organization said. “But Highway Trust Fund (HTF) revenues have not been adjusted in 20 years. Without new revenues, the trust fund faces a 100 percent cut in FY2015.”

The current transportation spending law is scheduled to expire in September 2014.

Congress paid for the measure, which spends approximately $54 billion per year on transportation projects, with a package of trust fund sweeps and fee increases.

Before the shutdown began on Oct. 1, lawmakers had begun holding hearings on potential transportation funding sources that would make it possible to avoid next year’s expected shortfall.

But those talks have disappeared with Congress focused on ending the shutdown and raising the debt ceiling by Oct. 17.

Transportation advocates acknowledge that the shutdown has made terrible timing for the gas tax pitch.

They also say the shutdown is just making things worse by furloughing transportation employees and closing national parks, where some roads need improvements.

“The shutdown of the federal government will have long-lasting negative effects on America’s already outdated infrastructure,” American Society of Civil Engineers Gregory DiLoreto said in a statement.

“With national parks closed, repair and replacement projects will be put on hold while parks lose needed revenue,” DiLoreto said. “We have furloughed one-third of the U.S. Department of Transportation employees, hurting our ability to assess, plan, and respond to needed surface transportation issues. This short-sighted shutdown creates economic uncertainty and halts continuing planning, forcing infrastructure projects to use stop-gap measures for long-term needs.” 

DiLoreto said the shortfall in transportation was too important to ignore though, even as the rest of Washington was focusing on funding the government at all.

“America’s transportation infrastructure is on a collision course unless Congress takes swift action to approve a long-term revenue solution,” he said. “The Highway Trust Fund will be bankrupt by 2015 and MAP-21 is set to expire in September 2014. Infrastructure projects are already being put on hold because of the uncertainty of federal funding.”

MAP-21 is the shorthand that is used for the last transportation funding bill that was approved by Congress in 2012. It is short for Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, though transportation advocates argued the bill did not move as far as previous infrastructure funding measures.

The MAP-21 contained transportation funding for two years, which was all lawmakers said they could cobble enough money together for. Earlier iterations of federal transportation bills have included five or six years worth of funding, leading road and transit advocates to call for either a gas tax increase or a new transportation funding source altogether.

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