OK, perhaps I’m the slightest bit obsessed by the issue of the federal gas tax and the shrinking Highway Trust Fund. But I’ve got my reasons: policy, political, and personal.
On the policy side, raise your hand if you think we can maintain a safe and productive transportation infrastructure on the back of a federal gas tax that has held fast at 18.4 cents/gallon for over twenty years. (Anyone who raised their hand, use that hand to smack yourself in the head until you’ve changed your mind.) It’s not been raised for inflation, for better mileage of the fleet on the road, nor for the fact that people are driving less and using more mass transit (about 15% of the fund supports mass transit).
On the personal side, every morning when I drive to work in DC for the past five or six months, I and everyone else swerves around this pothole in the 3rd Street Tunnel, about two blocks from the Capitol building. Actually, it started out as two potholes but they’ve gotten married and are probably about to start a family. And that just really irks me.
Finally, there’s the political, upon which I’d like to dwell a bit. In an earlier piece, I criticized the White House for rejecting a bipartisan proposal to replenish the trust fund in perpetuity by raising the federal gas tax by 12 cents over two years and then indexing it to inflation. It’s not a perfect proposal, but it’s an excellent place to start the debate. So I was quite disappointed when the administration appeared to shoot it down.
Today, press secretary Josh Earnest was pressed a bit more on this point, and while he touted the administration’s preferred idea to pay for infrastructure spending—closing corporate tax loopholes “that benefit the wealthy”—he left the door open at least a crack, saying something like, “If there are other people that have other ideas, we’ll certainly evaluate them as they move through the process. But we’ve been very clear about what we support.”
Now, anyone who knows my work at all knows I’m no apologist for “the wealthy.” Though the economic incentives may point in that direction, I do not feel the slightest bit compelled to defend the top 1%. In fact, I recently wrote that I don’t see how we help the poor more without taxing the rich more.
But I don’t think every single tax must assiduously avoid those in the bottom 99%, especially one like the federal gas tax that works much like a user fee. We who use roads and transit know who we are and there’s nothing wrong with making the case that we should help support their upkeep. There’s no need to put this solely on the wealthy. I’m confident that most of us are smart and fair-minded enough to readily understand that the fund can’t function on a tax that’s gone unadjusted for 21 years.
It’s true that the gas tax is regressive, and that’s all the more reason to maintain and increase the progressivity of other parts of the tax code, much as the administration has argued. We should absolutely close those corporate loopholes Earnest referenced. But if a few more cents per gallon is what it will take to maintain our highway infrastructure, then IMHO it’s the job of our leaders to make that case to the non-wealthy along with the rich.
The President is particularly eloquent and convincing in pointing out how we’re in this together. Here’s a case where we can put that into action. Not: “let’s get together and tax someone else for something we all use,” but “if you’re a driver, then I think you’ll understand that after 21 years, I need to ask you to kick up your contribution to the infrastructure upon which we all depend.”
I can’t be sure it will work, but it’s the right argument.