Ray LaHood, a former Republican congressman who served as President Obama’s Secretary of Transportation, recently tried to raise the alarm. “Our infrastructure is on life support right now,” LaHood said. “That’s what we’re on.”
There’s no great mystery as to why, either. The Highway Trust Fund, which plays a central role in financing infrastructure projects, is financed through a federal gas tax that hasn’t changed in two decades. It’s also set to run out of money in May. As a result, American investment in infrastructure has fallen to its lowest point since 1947.
The good news is, there’s a credible solution on the table: take advantage of low gas prices, increase the gas tax, replenish the Highway Trust Fund, invest in infrastructure, and boost American commerce and job growth.
President Barack Obama met with members of the Business Roundtable, a group of CEOs of major companies, on Wednesday. During that meeting, Fred Smith, the CEO of FedEx and a huge booster of transportation spending, made the case for raising the gas tax, saying the move has support among Democrats, Republicans and the labor and business communities.“Why not, before the Congress goes home for December, just pass a bill that takes the two bipartisan bills that I just mentioned, up, and solves the problem?” said Smith.
Some of you may be reading this, thinking, “Wait, there are bipartisan bills to raise the gas tax?” The answer, oddly enough, is yes.
There’s a proposal pending on the Hill – one bill in the House, one in the Senate – that would raise the current federal gas tax by 15 cents over three years (a nickel per gallon, per year). It even has a Republican co-sponsor in Rep. Tom Petri (R) of Wisconsin.
Indeed, Petri and his fellow co-sponsor, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), have spent parts of this week walking around Capitol Hill with a cardboard cutout of Ronald Reagan, reminding lawmakers that Ronaldus Magnus raised the gas tax in 1982, so the right doesn’t have to reflexively reject the idea now.
It’s worth emphasizing that Petri is retiring at the end of this Congress – which ends in a few weeks – which has liberated him to endorse a tax increase without fear of a far-right backlash.
But it doesn’t much matter. GOP leaders have said they will not consider a tax increases. Period. Full stop.
For its part, the White House has its own concerns about a gas-tax increase being regressive, but (a) there’s been no veto threat of a bill that can’t pass; and (b) Obama administration officials believe infrastructure investments can and should grow through other means.