Last week, Barack Obama told America's needy governors a hard truth: The federal government can't just print more money to solve every problem. At some point, he said, Washington must make some hard fiscal choices. Yet now is the time for one such choice – a higher federal gas tax.
Gasoline prices have fallen by more than half since July, when Americans were spending $4-plus for a gallon of regular. There's room for an increase in the 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal gas tax.
At the same time, Mr. Obama plans to stimulate the economy with the biggest investment in infrastructure since the building of the National Highway System in the 1950s. The federal gas tax – which funds much highway, bridge, and mass transit construction and maintenance – has gone unchanged since 1993 and is underfunded.
But when "Meet The Press" host Tom Brokaw asked Obama on Sunday about bumping up gas prices, the president-elect waved off the idea. He said that, "putting additional burdens on American families right now" is a mistake.
Let's back up a minute. Obama's broad goal of investing in infrastructure makes sense. Last year's collapse of the Minneapolis bridge serves as a vivid reminder of the country's crumbling surface-transport network – a system that needs at least $225 billion in annual spending over the next five decades, according to a bipartisan commission headed by the US transportation secretary. The nation is spending less than 40 percent of that amount.
And Obama's right when he says Americans can't worry short term about the deficit, which would likely have to increase to make up for the shaky highway trust fund. The economy needs a stimulus now, and that infusion needs to be big enough to get the job done.
But it's simply foolish to turn down this opportunity when gas prices have fallen so steeply and the federal government is ringing up gazillions in debt.
Congress should factor in an increase in the federal gas tax as it works up its stimulus plan for the new administration. That would show Americans that Uncle Sam, too, is mindful of its credit-card debt.
The incoming president might be surprised at drivers' willingness to sacrifice. In November – yes, as jobs disappeared – voters passed 25 of 33 ballot measures to increase local or state taxes to pay for public transportation.
And amazingly, they're increasingly turning to mass transit, even though driving has become more affordable and fewer people have jobs to go to. The American Public Transport Association this week reported a jump in ridership of buses, subways, and commuter railways – up 6.5 percent in the quarter that ended in September, compared with a year ago. It's the largest quarterly increase in 25 years.
Americans have perhaps realized they can't go back to a time that prolonged oil dependency, added to greenhouse gases, and fueled gas-guzzling cars. In 2004, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that raising the gas tax by 46-cents-per-gallon would cut fuel consumption more quickly than raising mileage standards for Detroit.
Obama, so deft at argument, could sell the nation on a higher gas tax. His timidity on this point, at this time, is misplaced.