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National Journal Blog – What should the gas tax pay for? In a word, transportation.

[As posted by Ed Wytkind on National Journal’s Transportation Experts Blog]

What should the gas tax pay for? In a word, transportation.

Contrary to The Washington Post’s misguided editorial today, the gas tax must exclusively fund the expansion and maintenance of America’s transit and highway systems. Given our surface transportation network’s current state of disrepair and the puny amount of political will to pay for its needs, funding other priorities from the gas tax would be nothing short of disastrous. The Post might want to take a tour of our decaying transportation system before it serves up half-baked editorials about raising the gas tax to service the federal debt or maybe “rebate” some of the money back to Americans.

We currently have a severe funding gap in transportation. It will take $2.2 trillion to bring our overall infrastructure into a state of “good” repair, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ most recent report. And as we watched on television in 2007, America’s bridges can actually fall down. It’s sad to say it, but it often takes a calamity with a body count to bring about change. Sadly, the Minneapolis bridge collapse wasn’t enough to get this nation to act decisively.

Thankfully, we’ve seen a sea-change in Washington after eight long years of a White House that didn’t seem to know we had any transportation challenges in America. The Obama Administration clearly gets it – it understands the central role our transportation system plays in not only our global competitiveness but in job creation. Estimates vary, but most experts agree that with every $1 billion invested, around 35,000 jobs are created. In the current economic environment of high joblessness, transportation investment is a winning strategy: Americans get back to work and the nation rebuilds its decaying infrastructure.

Chairman Oberstar’s surface transportation reauthorization would spend $450 billion (actually half a trillion dollars if you include his vision for a rail program) on mass transit, highways and bridges. It would also put six million Americans to work in six years.

Our crumbling surface transportation system is a problem most Americans understand, because every one of us wastes an average of 36 hours per year stuck in traffic. Mass transit systems, seeing greater ridership every year, face budget crises forcing some to cut service and slash jobs. Washington can do something about this by giving transit systems more funds with greater flexibility to use them. More than 62 percent of rail passenger coaches are beyond their replacement age; about 6 in 10 busses must be replaced within 6 years; and poor road conditions are the number one cause of motor vehicle crash severity at a cost of $12 billion a year.

It would be hard to find a worse idea than raising the federal fuel tax but allocating none of the new funds to solve these and many other problems.

Responsible leadership must prevail here. Anyone who understands what’s at stake agrees that we need to find a way to increase transportation funding and a gas tax increase – among other proposals – must be on the table. We can’t rebuild America’s infrastructure with fairy dust, more hyperbole or fuel tax measures designed to alter Americans’ behavior, as The Washington Post would have us do. If a gas tax increase is to be considered, put the funds to work in rebuilding and repairing our surface transportation system. Leave the behavioral science to the editorial pages.

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