The average national gas price is currently $2.12 per gallon —down about half from the July 2008 peak of $4.11 per gallon. Recently gas prices had fallen for 50 of 51 days. Sounds like great news? Not entirely. Some Members of Congress think it represents a potentially missed opportunity that, if Congress fails to act now, may never come up again.
The issue is that the federal Highway Trust Fund is underfunded, to the point that it’s projected to run out of cash on hand this month. The American Society of Civil Engineers projects a $846 billion gap just in the next five years alone between what the country has budgeted to pay for roads, bridges, and transit and what those projects will actually cost. As a result, many worry about lack of infrastructure repair potentially causing another repeat of the 2007 Minnesota bridge collapse that killed 13.
The federal gasoline tax, which funds about 90 percent of the Highway Trust Fund, has remained stationary at 18.4 cents per gallon since August 1993, when it was last raised. If the tax had been adjusted for inflation, today it would be 30.6 cents per gallon — but it hasn’t been adjusted for inflation. That’s what some Democratic members of Congress now aim to fix.
What supporters say
Supporters argue that the price of gas has recently plummeted so fast that even with a gas tax increase, the total cost for consumers and drivers would still be less than it was just a month ago. For example, the AAA calculates that gas on average currently costs 15 cents less than it did a month ago (and 52 cents less than a year ago). So even if the gas tax went up by 12.2 cents per gallon — the amount it would need to rise to equal the inflation-adjusted level set under President Bill Clinton — drivers would still be paying less than they were even a month ago… and a lot less than several years ago.
There are several proposals in Congress to enact such a change.
The TRAFFIC Act
One is the awkwardly-named Tax Relief And #FixTheTrustFund For Infrastructure Certainty Act, acronymed as the TRAFFIC Act, S. 1994. The bill from Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) would raise the gas tax to 34.3 cents per gallon, then index it to inflation starting in 2019 with the hope that this would negate the need for a statute-enacted raise ever again. It would also create tax credits to offset the effect on consumers. Carper’s bill, introduced last August, has one Democratic cosponsor but has yet to receive a vote in the Senate Finance Committee.
“Rather than lurching from crisis to crisis, increasing country’s debt, and borrowing more money from foreign governments to pay for our transportation system, I say it’s time to do what’s right,” Carper said in a statement announcing the bill. “At a time when gas prices are some of the lowest we’ve seen in recent memory, we should be willing to make the hard choice to raise the federal gas tax.”
The Update, Promote, and Develop America’s Transportation Essentials Act
A second proposal is H.R. 680: the Update, Promote, and Develop America’s Transportation Essentials Act. Introduced by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR3), the bill would raise the gas tax in several increments until it reached 33.3 cents per gallon in 2018. After that time, it would be indexed to inflation. The bill has 38 cosponsors, all Democrats, and has yet to receive a vote in the House Ways and Means Committee. Last year, Blumenauer attempted to attach an amendment to the must-pass highway funding bill that would essentially accomplish the same increase, but it failed.
“Addressing the infrastructure deficit, stabilizing transportation funding, and helping America’s all-too-slow economic recovery is critical if we want a livable and economically prosperous country in the years to come,” Blumenauer said in a statement upon introducing the bill. “The UPDATE Act will put hundreds of thousands to work at family wage jobs in every state, while improving the environment and quality of life.”
The Highway Trust Fund Certainty Act
This bill is a bit unusual because it comes from a Republican. Rep. Tom Rice (R-SC7) introduced H.R. 2971, the Highway Trust Fund Certainty Act, which would raise the gas tax to 28.4 cents per gallon and index it to inflation afterwards. It’s attracted no cosponsored, not even any Democrats reaching across the aisle, and has not received a vote in the House Ways and Means Committee.
“After 34 short-term patches, I believe it is time for Congress to change our approach and address our country’s long-term needs. By not having sustainable funding for our highway system, American business is less competitive globally,”said Rice in a statement announcing the bill. “[My bill] would ensure that the Highway Trust Fund is solvent and allow for necessary investments in our infrastructure.”
What opponents say
The most recent major legislative fix for the Highway Trust Fund was July 2015’s Surface Transportation and Veterans Health Care Choice Improvement Act, H.R. 3236. It used short term fixes to pay for highway funding, and passed with overwhelming bipartisanship in excess of 90 percent support in both the Senate and House. However, it didn’t include an increase in the gas tax as many Democrats wanted, because Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI1) called the idea a non-starter on behalf of the anti-tax Republicans he leads.
“Once again, the president expects hard-working consumers to pay for his out-of-touch climate agenda,” Ryan said of a similar-but-not-identical February proposal by President Obama to create a tax on oil barrels that would in effect raise the price of gas by about 25 cents per gallon. “As this lame-duck president knows, it’s dead on arrival in Congress, because House Republicans are committed to affordable American energy and a strong U.S. economy.”
Where the president and presidential candidates stand
Obama has expressed a hesitancy towards raising the gas tax itself, though. His most recent $478 billion infrastructure plan did not include a gas tax hike. In fact, one of the White House’s biggest criticisms of the proposal is a direct result of another one of Obama’s policies: his mandate for increased fuel efficiency standards for vehicles. “We’re finding that the fleet that’s on the road right now is more fuel-efficient, which means that they’re using less gas, which means that the gas tax is a less reliable source of that kind of funding,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest at a press conference.
Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump appear to have taken a direct stand on the issue during the 2016 campaign. The Republican nominee is of course naturally going to be more anti-tax, but some have noted the glaringlack of a gas tax increase in Clinton’s official tax plan. As a U.S. senator back in 2008, Clinton sided in favor of temporarily suspending the federal gas tax — along with the Republican presidential nominee John McCain — during summer 2008 during the time of all-time record high prices. Obama opposed the measure, which was never enacted.