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Samuel I. Schwartz, P.E.Back to OpinionSamuel I. Schwartz, P.E.

Making a case for the gas tax

Here we go again: Another showdown is looming in Washington. Congress has authorized the federal gas tax only until Sept. 30 – and with gas prices almost $4 a gallon, there are loud voices on the right side of the aisle, combined with silence on the left, that threaten its continued existence.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and 13 Republican colleagues have introduced a bill that would decentralize the tax — allowing states to claim most of what their citizens contribute through the tax.

On the presidential campaign trail, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) promised to roll back gas prices to $2 a gallon if elected — a brazen pledge that surely would hinge on lowering the 18.4-cent-a-gallon levy from Washington.

And Grover Norquist, the hard-line anti-tax guru, has made no secret that he’d eventually like to phase out the tax entirely.

All of which makes it very possible that the tax will sunset on September 30 — at least for days, if not weeks or months.

This would be a disaster. Each state can and should stand ready to rush to the rescue with a state gas tax of its own.

Why do we need the federal gas tax? This little levy generates about $3 billion a month for the Highway Trust Fund. That fund is the primary source for the paychecks of thousands of engineers, designers and construction workers involved in federal highway projects.

While I strongly believe the tax is way too low (it hasn’t been raised in 18 years, and it should be pegged to inflation), its immediate reauthorization is vital to the nation — especially in a reeling economy hurting for jobs.

The impacts would be immediately felt with the furloughing of millions of people working on federally funded transportation projects, a repeat of what happened a few weeks ago, on a much smaller scale, with the stalemate over the FAA reauthorization. The financial hit would be magnified two or three times by the ripple effect of the workers’ reduced spending on food, rent and clothes on the rest of the economy.

If that happens, get ready for a downward spiral.

Our infrastructure is reeling from old age and insufficient preventive maintenance. Don’t believe me? Just this past week, the failure of a single piece of equipment in Arizona left more than 4 million people without power for up to12 hours. Then Indiana abruptly shut down the I-64 Sherman Minton Bridge after inspectors discovered cracks in two steel support beams, leaving the 80,000 vehicles that cross it daily in the lurch.

This summer, Iowa had to shut down one of its interstate bridges for nearly a week after finding a structural crack, and Oklahoma City reported over 675 water main breaks within six weeks

In New York alone — Irene aside — the Long Island Rail Road suspended service on two branches for nearly a day after a fire knocked out a track-switching system, a NJ Transit train derailed outside New York Penn Station, and three water mains broke, halting traffic and disrupting subway and bus service throughout the city each time they did so.

With each incident, our infrastructure is screaming for help — telling us “FIX ME.”

So, what’s the answer? If the feds fall down on the job, individual states have to be ready to pick themselves up – and do, in essence, what Coburn proposes: keep the tax money in-state. The day the feds halt the gas tax, each state should institute its own tax, the exact same amount as the feds would collect, on a temporary basis.

Drivers will still pay the same amount at the pump – only this time states will keep the money for repairs at home.

The coming federal gas tax reauthorization showdown puts millions of workers and billions of dollars on the line. If the federal government can’t create a unified response to this infrastructure crisis, each state must act.

Additional research by Laura MacNeil and Josh Knoller


  • Ellen Dannin

    Excerpt from Crumbling Infrastructure, Crumbling Democracy: Infrastructure
    Privatization Contracts and Their Effects on State and Local Governance,
    6 Nw. J. L. & Soc. Pol’y 47 (2011).

    [O]ur only option is not selling off our assets on terms that cede to private hands control of our democratic institutions, autonomy, and destiny.  
        The federal gas tax, which funds our transportation infrastructure, . . . no longer meets our needs because (1) the increased use of fuel efficient vehicles has driven down fuel tax revenues per mile driven; (2) the tax, long stuck at 18.4 cents per gallon, is not indexed for inflation and has not been raised for over a decade;  and (3) there is no political will to take the obvious step of setting the fuel tax at a level to maintain and build our country’s infrastructure. The federal government has met the revenue shortfall by taking money from other funds.   Thus, “what drivers may not see or understand is that even though higher fuel prices mean that they are paying a higher price for driving that does not mean that they contribute more towards the cost of roads.”   These funding problems and other challenges have kept surface transportation programs on the Government Accountability Office’s High-Risk list.
        The obvious fix is to raise the gas tax.  It costs little to collect, especially compared to tolls, because it is collected at the point of sale and requires no special collection equipment.  The gas tax also fits with the currently popular user-pays philosophy.  Unlike tolls, the fuel tax applies to every mile we drive, although greater use of hybrid and electric cars are altering this connection.
        However, the fuel tax suffers from the same problem that afflicts all taxes in the United States these days: there are strong objections to taxes  and, in particular to raising taxes during a recession.

  • Louise

    Educate the driver that a road that needs fixing will do damage to their car and it  will cost them dearly in the long run for car repairs. Perhaps paying the taxes will be be accepted without complaint.

  • Thomas

    This is exactly why congress doesn’t enforce auto makers to get higher gas mileages. The fewer MPG we have on our cars the more money congress makes. We’ve all seen where someone has invented a car that gets 100+ mpg. Question: why haven’t they been patented & why haven’t we seen them roll off the assembly line yet? (No, I’m not talking about hybrids)
    We all want less dependency on foreign oil, spend less at the pumps & drive a car that gets 100+ mpg. Find those patents & start building them!!