Reps press for gas tax hike

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A bipartisan pair of lawmakers pushed Wednesday for a 15-cent increase in the tax that is paid by drivers when they fill up at the pump. 

Drivers have been charged an extra 18.4 cents per gallon at the pump to help pay for transportation projects since 1993 under the federal gas tax.  

Reps. Tom Petri (R-Wis.) and Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) said Wednesday that it was time to ask drivers to pay more to help improve the roads they drive on everyday. 

{mosads}“I am co-sponsoring Rep. Blumenauer’s bill because we need a first-rate transportation system and the responsible thing to do is pay for it,” Petri said at a press conference on Wednesday.  

Petri and Blumenauer are offering legislation now that would phase in the gas tax increase over the next three years.  

Petri is retiring at the end of the year, but he said Wednesday that Congress should take up the gas tax measure, which is known as the Update, Promote and Develop America’s Transportation Essentials (Update) Act, before he leaves office. 

“For too long we have watched unmet infrastructure needs increase and the regular funding source to meet these needs become less and less relevant over time,” he said.  “We have to ask ourselves what is the more fiscally responsible route to take — budget gimmicks that fool taxpayers into thinking we have offset spending but that, in reality, put more debt in the hands of future generations? Or, restoring purchasing power to the Trust Fund so we can meet our transportation needs now and in the future?” 

The push for an increase in the gas tax comes as the AAA auto club predicted on Wednesday that gas prices in the U.S. could drop another 15 to 20 cents per gallon by New Year’s Day. 

The gas tax, which pre-dates the development of the Interstate Highway System by nearly two decades, has been the primary source for federal transportation projects since its creation in the 1930s. 

Receipts from the gas tax have been outpaced by transportation expenses by about $16 billion annually in recent years as construction costs have risen and cars have become more fuel efficient. 

The current level of federal spending on transportation is about $50 billion per year, but the gas tax only brings in about $34 billion annually at its current rate.

Blumenauer said the idea of increasing the gas tax to help close the gap should be able to overcome partisan divides in Washington. 

“We all use our roads, bridges and rail, whether we’re Republicans or Democrats, rural or urban,” Blumenauer said. “[President] Reagan also knew that the gas tax is actually a user fee, which means that those who use the roads the most are the ones paying for them. This should be our last gas tax increase ever, as we look for fairer and more sustainable funding methods, but it’s necessary to bridge the gap and keep our country moving.”

Transportation advocates have frequently cited Reagan’s support for a gas tax increase in 1982 in an attempt to build support among modern Republicans for a 2014 hike, but they have so far been unsuccessful. 

Petri said Wednesday that the 40th president was right to increase the gas tax in the early 1980s. 

“Reagan supported raising the gas tax back in 1982 because he believed in funding American infrastructure in a responsible way. I think he was right, and it’s the best course of action we can take at this time.”

Lawmakers have turned to other areas of the federal budget in recent years to close the gap in lieu of asking drivers to pay more at the pump, but critics say the temporary bandages are contributing to a weakened national infrastructure. 

Congress had a chance to pass a multi-year transportation funding package earlier this year, but lawmakers could not agree on a way to pay for more than a couple of months’ worth of projects, resulting in a temporary extension that lasts only until May 2015. 

The nearly $11 billion measure, which reauthorized the collection of the gas tax but did not increase it, was intended only to prevent a bankruptcy in the Department of Transportation’s Highway Trust Fund. 

The trust fund had been scheduled to run out of money in September without congressional action. 

Transportation advocates have suggested that the current lame-duck session would be the best time for lawmakers to raise the gas tax because it would be more politically viable than it would be during the next Congress. But lawmakers have shown little appetite for tackling the proposed hike before the end of the year, despite the bipartisan display on Wednesday by Petri and Blumenauer. 

Tags Earl Blumenauer Gas Tax Highway bill Highway Trust Fund MAP-21 Reauthorization Tom Petri

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