When last we suggested back in summer that raising the fuel tax was a good idea, the average national price of regular gasoline stood near $3.60 a gallon. On Tuesday, the price was $2.11, a drop of 40 percent. The price has fallen for a record 110 days consecutively.
There will never be a better time for Congress to save the Highway Trust Fund.
No one wants to spoil the party just when consumers are finally getting a break on fuel prices, but an increase need not be painful if done right and done now. Republicans and Democrats should be able to agree on this, and there is no feasible alternative for the urgent need to fix America’s crumbling infrastructure.
Fuel buyers have been hit hard in recent years. Price spikes have topped $5 per gallon in some states, and up to $4 in parts of Florida. That’s hard on drivers who have to count their pennies and live in places with inadequate mass transit — like South Florida.
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But the drop in prices, which is expected to last for some time, means the average American household could save at least $550 on gasoline this year compared to what it spent in 2014 — when they saved a cumulative $14 billion because of falling prices in the latter half of the year. Raising the tax by 12 cents a gallon over the next two years, a level sufficient for current needs, still leaves substantial savings.
The increase is way overdue. The last time the fuel tax was raised, by 4.3 cents per gallon, was 1993. When it was redirected to fund the federal Highway Trust Fund in 1997, the 18.4-cent tax was 16 percent of the pump price. That would translate to 34 cents per gallon at the current price.
“If something like this is going to be done, now is the time to do it,” says Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who, along with Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., is co-sponsoring the bill to raise the tax by 12 cents. Republicans have fostered an anti-tax environment in Washington, but some are saying they could support this hike as a “user fee” to ensure each driver pays his or her fair share.
And here’s the best part for the American public: The fuel tax would revive the Highway Trust Fund, which was near insolvency until Congress found temporary revenue last year to cover the shortfall.
After May, though, the tank hits empty. The fund faces a $160-billion deficit over the next 10 years, and the gas tax is the best way to provide a long-term, sustainable federal funding solution.
Anyone who doubts the urgent need to act should read the most recent “Report Card for America’s Infrastructure” of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
One in nine bridges are structurally deficient, the report found; engineers identified $76 billion in needs for weak bridges across the country. Roadways fared even worse. The ASCE gave America’s roads a grade of D for congestion and poor conditions, citing a government study that said $170 billion in annual investment is necessary to improve conditions and performance significantly. The group says 42 percent of major urban highways remain congested, forecasting deteriorating conditions and worsening times for drivers.
The depletion of the Highway Trust Fund is a no-win situation. Fixing it should be a no-brainer. The bipartisan nature of the Corker-Murphy bill makes the fuel tax a perfect task for a Congress whose leaders say they want to break the gridlock on Capitol Hill and make government work. This is their chance to prove they mean what they say.