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Antitax hysteria is hastening America's decline

A gas tax would be a smart and fair way to plug Pennsylvania’s fiscal hole. But raising taxes appears to be outside the realm of rational discussion.

By Dennis Jett / April 28, 2010

State College, Pa.

Will the fate of Interstate 80 become a metaphor for America? If it does, this country’s painful decline will be self-inflicted.

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Not that there is anything wrong with I-80 at the moment. It runs for 311 bucolic miles through the middle of Pennsylvania and is in generally good shape. In order to maintain the road and generate funds for other projects in the state, Pennsylvania’s legislature had approved a plan to place tolls on the road. The $472 million that would have been collected was supposed to cover about half what the state intended to spend on highways and public transportation.

The federal government turned down the state’s proposal, however. Even though this was the third time Washington rejected the idea of tolls, Pennsylvania’s lawmakers apparently had no Plan B. Now the governor will convene a special session of the legislature on May 4 to consider how to raise the money required or to decide where to cut.

While there are several different options, the most obvious one probably won’t get the serious discussion it deserves. Increasing the state fuel tax – which now stands at 32.3 cents per gallon – by about seven cents a gallon could fill the gap. The people using Pennsylvania’s roads would pay the tax and it would cost nothing more to collect. Gasoline prices have risen 80 cents a gallon since a year ago, and yet the republic still stands, so the burden is bearable.

In the current political climate, however, raising taxes is outside the realm of rational discussion. Those who are the loudest constantly demand lower taxes and less government and their mantra is reported as though it were a universally held belief.

The debate in the state legislature will therefore probably veer in the direction of which programs to cut and how much of I-80’s maintenance to defer. But deferring fixes will just add to the pain later; the total cost for state infrastructure repairs now equals $14 billion.

One alternative that will be considered is leasing the freeway to private companies. That is a popular approach to many public functions because it feeds into the notion that the government can do nothing right and the private sector can run anything well. The maligned Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, under investigation by the state’s attorney general and the FBI, seems to be a talking point in favor of that argument.