Dem mayor: GOP resistance to gas tax hike 'borders on disgust'

Dem mayor: GOP resistance to gas tax hike 'borders on disgust'
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Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker (D) said Thursday that it "borders on disgust" that Congress has refused to increase the federal gas tax in the face of dwindling transportation revenue and a looming deadline for highway funding.

Lawmakers have repeatedly ruled out a hike in the 18.4-cents-per-gallon gas tax to help pay for roads, even as they have struggled to come up with another funding mechanism for programs set to expire on July 31

Becker said in an interview with The Hill on Thursday that his conservative home state of Utah's decision to increase its own gas tax earlier this year showed Republicans in Congress should be able to support a national hike. 

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"Regardless of how conservative a place we live in, we still deal with the reality that people have to get around and it takes funding to make the improvements," said Becker, who is also president of the National League of Cities. 

"You can put it off for a while and you can talk about all the different options that are out there, but ultimately you have to address the need," he continued. "From a local perspective, we are mystified is a nice way of saying it — borders on disgust that Congress can't from our perspective do its job the way we need it to and do it year in and year out to balance our budgets and still find ways to meet the needs that people expect from us." 

The federal gas tax has been the main source of transportation funding for decades, but it has not been increased since 1993, and more fuel-efficient cars have sapped its buying power.

Congress has been grappling with a transportation funding shortfall that is estimated to be about $16 billion per year, and it has not passed a transportation bill that lasts longer than two years in that span. 

The federal government typically spends about $50 billion per year on transportation projects, but the gas tax only brings in approximately $34 billion annually. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated it will take about $100 billion, in addition to the gas tax revenue, to pay for a six-year transportation funding bill.

Transportation advocates are pushing for a gas tax increase to pay for a long-term transportation bill, but Republican leaders in Congress have ruled out a tax hike.

Becker said Thursday that increasing the national gas tax is the easiest solution to the transportation funding shortfall. 

"We know that raising taxes is abhorrent to a lot of people and maybe to me personally that I don't like to see taxes raised, but you have to balance things out and try to make a good decision," he said. 

The Utah state legislature voted earlier this year to increase the state's own 24.5-cents-per-gallon gas tax by 5 cents starting next year. 

Becker said Congress could adopt a similar increase nationally and face little political pain. 

"[The] gas tax is how we paid for roads forever," he said. "It's something I think the public is accustomed to. I get that for whatever combinations of reasons it's unacceptable to certain ideologies, but you could say that about property taxes in my city. But that doesn't mean that when it's absolutely necessary and we've cut everything we can to try to make thing work, that we don't raise property taxes." 

Congress has been reluctant to ask drivers to pay more at the pump for two decades, but Becker said public dissatisfaction with the state of the nation's roads would trump anger at an increase in gas prices. 

"People don't like it. We don't like it," he said. "But people also don't like the fact that they can't get down the roads because there are holes in them and they can't get a bus because it comes once a hour." 

The Department of Transportation has said its Highway Trust Fund will dip below a critical level of $4 billion at the end of this month if Congress does not come to an agreement on an extension in the next couple of weeks. The agency has said missing the deadline would prompt a cut-back on payments to states for construction projects that are already underway. 

Lawmakers have turned to other areas of the federal budget to close the transportation funding gap in recent years, resulting in temporary fixes, such as a two-month patch approved by lawmakers in May that is set to expire on July 31.

Becker said Thursday that Congress should stop the cycle of temporary transportation extensions that has resulted in 33 patches since 2005. 

"Sometimes you need to make hard choices," he said. "You need they to break out of whatever box you're in and reach across the aisle and reach to your colleagues and say 'this is pretty ridiculous.' "