The decaying road infrastructure in the United States is obvious to everyone, yet state and federal legislators have done nothing for decades. Despite the constant threat of injury due to failing roads and bridges, hiking the federal gas tax is viewed as a death sentence for politicians, who have not raised the levy since 1993. Back then the gas tax represented 17.1 % of the total retail price of gas; in 2014, it constituted only 5.3%.
Gas tax revenue has not kept up with inflation, which has resulted in tax revenue for the federal Highway Trust Fund to be taken from other revenue sources to remain solvent. The Fund, which is $52 billion in the red over the past decade, will run out of money at the end of May unless Congress acts to reauthorize funding.
The lack of federal funds is squeezing states to do more on their own to repair their infrastructure, and Oregon is one of at least 10 states that are attempting to raise revenue. In July, Oregon will test moving from a fixed per-gallon tax to a per-mile-driven fee. The challenge with testing the program with 5,000 volunteers is that the self-selecting audience is likely to save money since drivers with low fuel economy vehicles are unlikely to join, knowing that they would pay more by participating. However, if those who do participate react positively, then Oregon is more likely to move to implement the plan for all drivers.
The move to a per-mile fee is in response to decreasing use of fuel (and therefore tax revenue) per mile driven due to increasing fuel economy and the arrival of plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs). Some states have considered adding an annual registration fee for PEVs, which don’t pay road taxes on the electricity that powers the vehicles.
While this would raise revenue, it could reduce sales of PEVs if the overall fuel savings were then reduced. A more equitable solution would be to combine a per-mile-driven tax with annual registration fees that consider another negative impact of driving—greenhouse gas emissions. Having more costly registration fees for vehicles with higher emissions (i.e., low fuel economy) could keep the overall cost of driving a PEV, hybrid, or other fuel efficient vehicle sufficiently cheaper to encourage their purchase.
Other states considering changes to gas and road taxes to increase revenue include Illinois and Nebraska. The Nebraska legislature on May 14 overrode the governor’s veto of a law that would raise the gas tax.
Bridges Out Ahead
“Once again, the Legislature has chosen to prioritize tax hikes over tax relief measures that Nebraskan need and deserve,” Nebraska governor Pete Ricketts said, as quoted by the Associated Press.
On the federal level, Rep. Peter DeFazio, a Democrat who is also from Oregon, has proposed redirecting funds from the estate tax to the Highway Trust Fund rather than repealing it. This initiative, like most other bills related to infrastructure funding, has little chance of passing despite the considerable benefits, including creating 13,000 jobs per $1 billion spent.
Sadly, it will likely take a series of bridge collapses such as what happened recently in Jacksonville, Florida or other such calamities for the public to pressure state and federal legislators to take serious action on infrastructure.
Tags: Gas Tax, Highway Trust Fund, Plug-In EVs, Policy & Regulation, Transportation Efficiencies
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