Federal Gas Tax: LaHood Makes No Sense

Former U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood lobbied for a federal gas tax increase in a Washington Post letter the other day. The letter captures the illogic and misrepresentation that influences the highway funding debate.

Hugh Hewitt was right on target in his May 31 op-ed, “Trump should raise this tax,” about boosting the federal gas tax to address our nation’s crumbling roads and bridges. The federal gas tax of 18.4 cents a gallon has not been increased in 24 years. Imagine living today on the same salary you made in 1993. That’s the dire situation facing our infrastructure: We’re supporting our roads and bridges using outdated budgets that fail to meet the demands of 2017.

On this important issue, Congress must look to the 22 states that have raised their gas taxes since 2013. States leading the way are “red” states such as Wyoming, Georgia and Idaho and “blue” states such as California, Maryland and Vermont. The list also includes New Jersey, with a Republican governor and Democratic-controlled legislature. Infrastructure is a bipartisan issue. It’s time our federal government takes the action for which Republicans and Democrats have been tirelessly advocating.

Over the years, gridlock and finger-pointing have prevented real action on addressing our infrastructure challenges. All the while, traffic congestion has worsened, potholes have multiplied, and our roads and bridges have further deteriorated.

Here are some problems with LaHood’s position:

First Problem. As former transportation chief, LaHood must know that his own department publishes data showing that the condition of the nation’s bridges has steadily improved for two decades, while the condition of highways has been stable in recent years and improved in some cases since the 1990s. (Highway data summarized here and here. Bridge data here). Why does he say “… bridges have further deteriorated” when he surely knows that is not correct?

Second Problem. The 18.4 cent-per-gallon federal gas tax has not been raised since 1993, and its real value has eroded since then. However, the gas tax rate was more than quadrupled between 1983 and 1993 from 4 cents to 18.4 cents. The 1983 rate would be 9.8 cents in today’s dollars, so the real gas tax rate has risen substantially since then. Even if “potholes have multiplied,” the blame would go to the increasing diversion of plentiful gas tax funds to non-highway uses such as urban rail.

Third Problem. The final issue is the internal inconsistency of LaHood’s position. His first paragraph complains that federal gas taxes are not high enough. But his second paragraph says that 22 states have raised their own gas taxes in just the past four years, which logically negates the need for a federal gas tax increase. The states that have the highest demands for new highway funds are apparently already taking action. Great, problem solved.

In my new Cato study on infrastructure, I note that 98 percent of U.S. streets and highways are owned by state and local governments. The states are entirely capable of funding such infrastructure they own without federal aid. States can tax, borrow, collect user charges, and attract private investment to fund their highways, bridges, airports, and seaports.

Are there any advantages to raising federal gas taxes over raising state gas taxes? How is federal funding of state-owned infrastructure superior to state funding? LaHood and other advocates don’t tell us. Instead, they wave their arms, prattle about crumbling roads and multiplying potholes, and always demand more centralized spending and control.