Failing to Renew the Gas Tax Is Just Plain Crazy

Along with the federal transportation bill, the federal gas tax authorization is set to expire on September 30th. The tax, currently 18.4 cents a gallon, is the primary source of funding for our nation’s transportation program.

Hill-watchers are concerned that House Republicans might use the gas tax reauthorization as leverage in the continuing budget wars. Without renewal, the tax will drop back to its pre-1993 level of 4 cents a gallon – wiping out billions of dollars of revenue for building, maintaining and repairing our roads, bridges and public transit.

Allowing the gas tax to expire (or even eliminating it, as Tea Party hero Grover Norquist has suggested) would be so ill-advised, I can only call it crazy. Hundreds of highway and transit projects in progress across the country would grind to a halt, and result in the immediate loss of thousands of construction jobs. Our already beleaguered roads, bridges and public transit systems would deteriorate further as state and local authorities scrounge for funding.

Imagine what your commute would be like if states had only a fraction of existing funding to fix potholes and bridges, run trains and buses, and find ways to ease congestion. This is a system crying out for investment, not neglect. States would either have to raise their own gas taxes to fund critical repair and maintenance projects, or simply continue to forgo repairs – at least until another bridge collapses.

Economists, politicians and analysts of all political stripes understand the crucial role of a national transportation program and have even called to increase the gas tax as a debt-reduction measure. Robert Samuelson in the Washington Post recommended a 25 cents per gallon gas tax to help fix the budget. The Presidential debt commission called for a 15 cent per gallon increase in the tax. Bill Bradley, Tom Ridge and David Walker at the Carnegie Endowment also support the gas tax, albeit a variable one. Even the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce see eye-to-eye on this issue.

Now, gas tax funds haven’t always been used wisely, and that can and should be addressed in any new transportation bill. But right now the gas tax is about the only thing holding up our deteriorating transportation network. It’s simply too important to be a pawn in political gamesmanship.