Transportation Bill Gridlock: Is Doctrine Driving Our Country Into a Ditch?

Perhaps the biggest block to creating a viable transportation policy for this country is the rabid anti-tax sentiment in Congress, which has essentially taken revenue increases out of the transportation debate.

Our transportation program is broke. For years, Congress has been taking billions of dollars directly out of the Treasury to prop up transportation funding. This makes our current transportation policy a direct and active contributor to our national debt crisis.

Our lawmakers know that the transportation program needs investment. Report after report, from groups as disparate as the Presidential Debt Commission, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, shows this to be the case. But the pervasive anti-tax ideology, as well as high gas prices, has Congress paralyzed.

This paralysis is surprising when you consider that the last president to raise the gas tax for the explicit purpose of investment in transportation was Ronald Reagan. Yes, in 1982, the staunchly anti-tax Reagan worked with a Democratic Congress to raise the gas tax by 5 cents a gallon. And he won the support of urban Democrats by ensuring that 1 out of those 5 cents would go to funding mass transit programs. That’s the kind of big-tent coalition building it takes to pass difficult but necessary measures.

This Congress would never raise the gas tax, but there are a couple of more politically palatable funding mechanisms that should be on the table. The first is a no-brainer -- repealing Big Oil’s massive tax breaks, which Congress is considering, and pouring that money into things like road and bridge repair and new transit capacity. The nonpartisan group Taxpayers for Common Sense says that from 2011 to 2015, oil and gas subsidies will top $31 billion. Wouldn’t that money better serve commuters than oil company execs with $50 million salaries?

Another funding solution I’ve testified to Congress about is an oil security fee. It’s not just enviros like me who are interested in this idea – libertarians and conservatives, as part of the Mobility Choice coalition, have signed on as well. Instead of taxing at the pump, we go right up to the wellhead or port-of-entry and charge a security fee to oil companies. This fee reflects the enormous national security costs of protecting our oil supply, which has in the past been funded, somewhat invisibly, by taxpayer dollars. An oil security fee would not only generate revenue, it would also more accurately reflect the true cost of gas.

America needs to find ways to fund a modern transportation network, or we risk driving this country into a ditch. Ronald Reagan knew that, and he worked with Congress to pass a politically difficult gas tax increase. Can this Congress break free of its dangerous, doctrinaire thinking and find ways to generate the revenue we so desperately need?