Gulf oil spill: a good reason to raise the federal gas tax

On Wednesday, President Obama reminded the nation that the Gulf oil spill is a good reason to pass climate-change legislation to help wean us from oil. The same argument can be made for raising the national gas tax, which hasn't been changed since 1993. A higher gas tax would also help support America's deteriorating highways and transit.

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    A man pumps gas in Lansing, Mich. Motorists may not realize it, but they've been getting a good deal on the national gas tax. That's not true for the nation's highways and transit.
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Infrastructure: yucky word, favorite topic. I think about a big piece of it – highways and bridges – every time I drive the Washington-Boston corridor, which I know by heart from way back when.

When I heard President Obama say Wednesday that the Gulf oil spill shows how important it is to wean ourselves from fossil fuels and pass climate-change/energy legislation, I found myself wishing he would make the same argument for raising the national gas tax.

The federal gasoline tax funds the solvency-challenged Highway Trust Fund, which was started in 1956 to build the Interstate system. It’s used for roads and transit but it’s running on fumes because the 18.4 cents per gallon tax hasn’t been raised since 1993.

What does this have to do with the Gulf oil spill? Well, Mr. Obama has been strongly opposed to raising the gas tax. It’s a political nonstarter in a weak economy. But a high enough fuel tax could also discourage fuel consumption – and help with the oil-weaning process.

It took political courage for the president to come out so strongly for another big piece of legislation like climate change, whose one Republican backer in the Senate has since dropped away. He should find that same courage on the fuel tax.

If he needs cover, he’s got it from an unusual source, Thomas Donohue, leader of the US Chamber of Commerce. Mr. Donohue, who used to be the president of the American Trucking Association, was the guest at a Monitor breakfast last week. He reiterated his support for an increase in the gas tax.

“It’s not a tax, it’s a user fee,” he said. “If you don’t drive on the road you don’t use it.” Indeed, the US transport system is based on the concept of users paying for this government service.

The last time the gas tax was increased, big trucks were getting about 4 miles per gallon, he recalled. Now, they get about twice that, driving twice the miles, creating twice the wear and tear. Same for cars. What a deal!

For the driver, not the condition of the roads. And infrastructure that's in good condition is absolutely essential to America’s economy and competitiveness.

That is, of course, why Donohue supports a higher gas tax. But the oil-weaning logic is also valid – especially if it will move Obama.

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