It’s Time To Update How We Fund Transportation Projects

It was 95 years ago today that Oregon, faced with rapid adoption of a new contraption called the automobile, instituted a one-cent tax on gasoline to cover the cost of paved roads for these vehicles. The slogan supporters used to sell the tax: “Get Oregon Out Of The Mud!”

Today’s transportation network is of course much bigger, and must meet much higher demands, but what we’re paying to maintain and improve the network hasn’t kept pace. Today’s federal gasoline tax of 18.4 cents a gallon is not that much higher in inflation adjusted terms than that penny tax levied back in 1919, and it hasn’t seen an increase in 21 years. And even if you add state and local gasoline taxes, the net result still threatens to leave us by 2020 more than $1 trillion short of what we need to do the maintenance and improvements we need on our roads, bridges and public transportation, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

More urgently, the Highway Trust Fund, which is the repository of that federal gasoline tax, is – not surprisingly – facing an imminent crisis. It is projected to run out of money sometime this summer. Already, Congress has had to transfer $54 billion in general revenues to the trust fund in the past five years, even though the trust fund is intended to be self-sustaining.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) is using today to call attention to what he has dubbed “The UPDATE Act” – “Update, Promote, and Develop America’s Transportation Essentials.”

The legislation would phase in a 15-cent increase in the gasoline tax over three years, which would largely restore the purchasing power the gas tax had when it was last raised, and would index the gas tax to inflation. But it would also start the process of coming up with new ways of covering the cost of our transportation infrastructure as we transition to an age dominated by hybrid and non-fossil-fueled vehicles.

Recently, House Speaker John Boehner declared that it was unlikely the House would approve any major legislation this year. But surface transportation funding can and should be a major exception.

For one thing, spending authority for the current suite of programs ends on September 30, and incumbent members of Congress aren’t going to want stories about halted local projects in their districts as they enter the home stretch of their general election campaigns. In fact – and here’s the second point – members of Congress should want to be doing all they can to produce more jobs in their districts, and expanding funding for the transportation projects we need is one sure way we can lower unemployment today and lay the groundwork for a more efficiently operating economy tomorrow.

Blumenauer’s legislation has the support of labor, transportation industry lobbyists and business groups. Who’s against it? The usual right-wing ideological suspects who reflexively oppose any tax increase (even if it is not actually an increase but an inflation adjustment) and reflexively cheerlead cuts in federal spending, regardless of (and occasionally because of) the harm those cuts would bring.

You can honor the birthday of the gasoline tax by contacting Blumenauer’s office and letting him know you agree that we need an update on how we cover the costs of our transportation network – so that we can have more jobs and move goods and people more efficiently.


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