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Who'll get what from the new US gasoline tax

By George B. Merry and Robert Kilborn Jr.Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / December 13, 1982


Passage of the federal gasoline tax increase would please - but not thrill - state highway administrators around the country, a Monitor survey shows.

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The congressional action also would catch their departments in various stages of readiness to apply the increased funds that will flow from the 5 -cent-a-gallon jump in the federal tax. In certain cases the wheels could begin turning on new projects within days once the money is forthcoming from Washington. Other states are less certain when they can begin spending the new money.

Indeed, Sen. Gordon Humphrey (R) of New Hampshire and other GOP conserva-tives began a filibuster as the measure came before the full Senate Friday and prospects for prompt passage dimmed. The senator argues that it would take a minimum of four months and probably closer to a year before the program could begin to function as intended. The freshman legislator terms the proposed increase ''New Deal nonsense.''

There are other complications. Some states do not have matching funds available to satisfy the usual federal disbursement formula - roughly an 80 percent federal contribution to 20 percent by a state - and would have to use the year allowed in one version of the bill to try to raise the money.

''I'm not going to say that matching funds aren't available,'' says Richard Adorjan, director of public affairs for the Illinois Department of Transportation. ''But if we were allowed to defer for a year, that would be very helpful.''

Others - like Michigan, Massachusetts, New York, California, and Texas - soon will have new governors who may want to reorder maintenance priorities.

Certain states fear they'll end up with less than their fair share of the increased revenues despite the provision in the House version of the bill for a guaranteed 85 percent return on taxes collected for all. This is particularly true in the vast but thinly populated West, where administrators worry that the distribution formula may end up weighted more heavily toward the vehicle-mileage traveled than toward the number of miles of roads in a state.

Many secretaries of transportation were encamped in Washington for the duration of the House and Senate debates on the bill to try to ensure that their states' interests were being protected.

Says Gerald McCarthy, deputy director of the Michigan Department of Transportation, ''We're fighting that (fair-share problem) by the hour.''

Adds Cy K. Lynn, special assistant for public affairs in the North Carolina Department of Transportation, ''Our concern is getting our fair share. We don't want to steal other states' money, but North Carolina has traditionally been a donor state - getting about 74 cents back on the dollar.''

But John Henchman, financial planning director of the Washington State Transportation Department, reports: ''We remain confident. We really believe the congressional people are going to work out a distribution system that is fair to the states.''

Massachusetts transportation officials, who did not want to be identified, expressed confidence that their congressional delegation, led by House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) would ensure their state was amply rewarded when the funds were apportioned.

Several administrators surveyed declined to estimate how many new jobs the increased revenues might mean for their states. Some estimates, however, were relatively high. In Illinois, where one job in five is transportation-related, up to 26,000 new ones could result from the new federal revenues, says Mr. Adorjan. California could gain 20,000 new jobs, according to Transportation Department spokesman Bill Bronte.

No state intends to refuse the money, but all sources contacted indicate it will only partially address what has become a massive maintenance problem.

A typical response came from Mark Hopkins, administrator for programming and budget for the Florida Department of Transportation. ''We're not going to let federal money just sit on the table; we're going to use it,'' he said.

At the same time, he indicated Florida could receive less than $100 million a year from the new increase, while its highway and bridge-maintenance needs at the moment are well into the hundreds of millions.

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