Hike the gas tax

No one likes to hear about raising taxes. But it has to be said that the proposal of Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis to increase the gasoline tax by 5 cents makes good sense. It would provide money for the rebuilding of America's deteriorating highways. It would alleviate the pressure on the federal budget. And, not least of all, it would prod Americans to keep conserving fuel at a time when gasoline prices are relatively soft and the temptation grows to go on a spree.

Asking the US motorist to pay more at the pump is not unreasonable despite the recession squeeze. The present federal gas tax of four cents a gallon should have been raised long ago. It has not changed since l959, when gas prices were low and it was therefore a much higher percent of the cost of gas. Yet road construction costs have risen several hundred times over since then, and the federal Highway Trust Fund has been dwindling as a result. Established to build the Interstate Highway System, the fund grew to $11 billion by 1980 but now has less than $9 billion, with commitments outstanding of twice that much. A 5-cent-a-gallon increase in the gas tax would yield about $5 billion a year ($ 1 billion of which would go to mass transit systems for capital expenses).

The worrisome fact is that America's roads, highways, bridges are in serious need of attention. About 75 percent of all the bridges are now more than 45 years old. Roughly 50 percent of the primary road system will reach the end of its design life in the 1980s. Obviously the nation must have a rehabilitated road infrastructure if it is to service industry and spur economic growth. Highways are not an extravagance. Most of America's shipping is carried on by highway - as contrasted with, say, the Soviet Union which relies on rail. Roads therefore are crucial to economic revitalization.

To put all the roads and bridges in tip-top shape would require an investment of some $60 billion. At present only $30 billion is being generated at all levels - federal, state, and local. The need is therefore clear. Even a 5-cent increase in the federal tax would not do everything, or relieve states also of raising additional revenue for road maintenance. Consumers, in any case, cannot complain. They have had a relatively free ride for the past two decades. Bad roads, moreover, cost them money - in worn tires, speed slowdowns, detours, and the like.

On this general subject, voices also are being raised in favor of a tax on imported oil, which would help bring down the budget deficits and similarly foster continued conservation. This idea, however, seems less attractive, especially during a recession. One problem is that the resulting increase in the price of petroleum would be spread out over all oil products, including heating oil. Many Americans, especially elderly poor, would therefore be burdened with even higher energy costs. The primary beneficiaries of an import tax, moreover, would be the oil companies which would simply pass on the excise tax to the consumer.

In light of the benefits of a higher gasoline tax, it is to be hoped that Congress will move quickly toward passage of it. With gasoline prices falling, a higher federal tax could be absorbed fairly painlessly. It is not unreasonable, in fact, to suggest that the lawmakers consider an even larger tax, allocating a portion of it to the general fund in order to reduce the budget deficit. They should not assume that voters back home will penalize them for acting in the national interest.

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