For years, the nation’s transportation funding account has lurched from crisis to crisis. Revenues have consistently failed to keep pace with the cost of infrastructure maintenance and construction. And the root cause of these very serious problems is crystal clear: Congress’s failure to raise the gas tax since 1993.
Yet despite an abundance of voices urging action—including businesses, labor unions, civil engineers, truckers, and even AAA—Congress is continuing its long-running opposition to a gas tax increase. Instead, House and Senate lawmakers are nearing the end of a vigorous search of the nation’s proverbial couch cushions as they hope to find enough “pay-fors” to delay having to enact a real funding reform package for at least a few more years.
The gasoline tax is the single largest source of funding for transportation infrastructure in this country. For more than 22 years, the federal gas tax has been stuck at a flat rate of 18.4 cents per gallon, meaning that the typical driver today is paying the same $3 per tank of gas (give or take) in federal tax that they did during the first year of President Bill Clinton’s administration. But since $3 cannot buy as much asphalt and machinery today as it did two decades ago, our transportation funding account has predictably slipped into perpetual imbalance.
Rather than update our gas tax rate, Congress is hoping to cobble together a few years’ worth of funding by shuffling around money paid by airline passengers, selling off millions of barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and spending Customs “user fees” on things that are unrelated to Customs and Border Protection.
But as bad as this incoherent and gimmicky package truly is, the sad reality is that it is better than the next most likely option on the table: a corporate “repatriation” tax. In addition to doing nothing to fix the unsustainability of our transportation funds, repatriation would reward and encourage offshore tax avoidance and reduce federal revenues in the long-term.
At this particular moment in history, it looks like budgetary gimmicks are about the best we can hope for out of Congress. Given that reality, state lawmakers should be aware that they will need to continue picking up the slack if our nation’s transportation network is going to keep moving forward.
But the change in the couch cushions will eventually run out. This certainly isn’t a long-term solution for funding the nation’s infrastructure.