There is a case to be made for an even higher gasoline tax

Dec 11, 2013 By The Baltimore Sun

Ah, to be in the U.S. economy of the 1990s, a decade when the gross domestic product grew by about one-third and unemployment dropped from 7.5 percent to 4 percent. In 1993, the federal government raised the tax on gasoline to 18.4 cents per gallon and business boomed.

Since then, the cost of a gallon of unleaded gasoline has more than doubled, yet the per-gallon federal excise tax has remained unchanged. States have raised their fuel taxes to keep up as best they can with local transportation needs, but the federal government's source of revenue has stagnated.

The result? The Highway Trust Fund has run dry, and the nation's transportation infrastructure has suffered. To keep up with basic needs, Congress has been forced to supplement it with billions of general tax dollars.

In the House last week, a bill was introduced that would raise the tax by 15 cents per gallon. That would, more or less, allow the tax to at least keep up with inflation (falling a bit short as a percentage of fuel costs). It has been endorsed by AAA, and it's a safe bet that many in the business community, in the labor unions and local government would like to see it approved as well.

Yet it's also safe to assume the bill has absolutely no chance of passing. So inviolate is the House's no-tax pledge that many apparently would rather see the nation's economy wither than be caught raising a tax that is in need of updating.

This is a classic case of cutting off one's nose to spite one's face. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the U.S. needs to invest about $2.7 trillion in transportation and other infrastructure by 2020 if the nation is to remain globally competitive. Yet the federal trust fund has become so depleted that experts say it won't be able to meet existing obligations.

To leave the next generation a pot-hole strewn, overcrowded and unworkable transportation system would be as disastrous and as crippling as any budget deficit.

Would raising the tax also increase the cost of fuel? Absolutely, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. As studies have shown, getting stuck in traffic is even more costly, and Americans are doing a lot of that these days.

As distasteful as raising gasoline costs may sound, it's a lot better than the alternative of neglecting the roads, bridges and rails -- or expecting some other miracle to come along.

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