In one of the first serious indications that President Trump may be ready to pursue the massive infrastructure rebuilding program he proposed on the campaign trail, he appears willing to consider increasing gasoline and diesel fuel taxes to pay for improved highways.
It’s too soon to tell how committed Trump is to such a plan, but it is refreshing to hear him back a major proposal with a way to fund it. Congress, overly sensitive to gas prices, has fended off such an increase for 24 years. Meanwhile, U.S. roads and bridges have deteriorated and the purchasing power of gas tax revenue has declined.
The federal gasoline tax was last raised in 1993. Over time, inflation and improved fuel efficiency have steady eroded its value. Raising the tax is not a perfect solution, particularly as highly fuel-efficient hybrid cars become more affordable. But the need for additional revenue is undeniable and has been put off to the point of irresponsibility. A 2016 state-by-state survey for the U.S. Department of Transportation shows the toll of that neglect.
Some Republicans complain about the gas tax’s regressivity – a feature that appears to trouble them little when they cheer efforts to send tax cuts to the rich. They also know it’s relatively easy to build in a tax credit for those who truly cannot afford even an extra dollar at the tank.
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There are some elements that would make it easier now. Gas is the cheapest it’s been in a decade. Consumers have become accustomed to prices that bounce up and down. An increase at the pump would barely be noticed by most car owners, but would pay huge dividends for roads and bridges. The current federal tax is 18.4 cents per gallon for gasoline, 24.4 cents for diesel.
Unlike 2008, when gas prices regularly topped $3.50, recently they’ve been relatively stable at $2.32. That has provided a little give when it comes to taxes. In addition, we’ve all become a little smarter about the collective effort required for good infrastructure. No amount in your personal portfolio will smooth out the potholes you must drive on.
Americans really do need to do some things together. Public infrastructure, indisputably, is one. Trump should begin to build the coalition he will need to push this through. The far right will object, but if Trump can carve a bargain by bringing Democrats and Republicans, businesspeople and laborers together on vitally needed infrastructure improvements that would benefit generations, he should seize the opportunity. Trump has spent much of his time so far proving himself to conservatives. Now it’s time for him to put some of those vaunted negotiating skills to work and show what he can deliver for the rest of the country.