Fight Over Federal Gas Tax Brewing
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, an eighth of bridges in America are "structurally deficient" which is the same designation that had been given to the Minnesota bridge over the Mississippi that collapsed on August 1. This designation does not necessarily mean that a bridge is unsafe, but the Department has stated that $65 billion could be spent immediately in cost-effective ways to address these deficiencies.
So it might seem reasonable that one effect of the August 1 tragedy would be to wake the nation up to pressing infrastructure needs. And in fact, Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has introduced a bill to temporarily raise the federal gas tax by five cents to fund bridge repairs.
But anti-tax advocates are having none of it. A coalition of 56 right-wing organizations has sent a letter to the President and Congress opposing the proposed gas tax increase. It's not clear which side will win this argument. There is some support on the Republican side of the aisle for raising revenue to address the issue. Rep. Don Young (R-AK), the former chair of Oberstar's committee, caused a stir when he said that hundreds of bridges are "potential death traps," which would justify a tax increase to fund repairs.
Food Fights in State Legislatures?
Meanwhile, the situation on the state level doesn't look any less cantankerous. Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and legislative leaders have not yet agreed on the parameters of a special session that weeks earlier seemed the likely result of the horrific tragedy. Recently Governor Pawlenty said on a local radio program "I'm not going to call a special session if there's going to be a food fight. Not everybody's on the same page." But if he fears a food fight, he's strangely ready to throw the first pie. The Governor said he may add property tax relief to the session's agenda, which would be oddly placed in a session that is supposed to address the bridge collapse. The session isn't likely to start until after Labor Day.
Other states are also taking transportation funding more seriously. Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley is expected to call for a gas tax increase that would adjust automatically for increases in the cost of construction. A thoughtful Baltimore Sun article describes the crisis that is created when gas taxes are low, but infrastructure costs are rising. There's no such thing as a free lunch, and certainly no such thing as a free bridge.