Repairing Bridges without Raising Gas Taxes
By Heidi Sommer and H. Sterling Burnett
In the wake of the August 1, 2007, Minneapolis bridge collapse, Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, proposed a 5-cents-per-gallon increase in the federal excise tax on gasoline.
Oberstar believes the hike would raise $25 billion over three years for critical bridge repairs across the United States. But his proposal flies in the face of growing public concern over sustained high gas prices. For instance, a 2006 CNN–ABC News poll found that 70 percent of respondents felt that gasoline price hikes had caused them personal hardship, and 59 percent believed gas prices had reduced their standard of living.
• The federal government imposes a gasoline tax of 18.4 cents per gallon.
• States levy additional gas taxes at rates ranging from a low of 8 cents per gallon in Alaska to a high of 44.4 cents per gallon in California.
• Combined federal and state gas taxes now average about 45 cents per gallon.
However, a substantial portion of the federal gas tax is diverted to nonhighway projects.
Diverting Gas Taxes. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), 12 percent of the 597,340 bridges in the United States are structurally deficient — requiring significant maintenance, rehabilitation or replacement.
• $5 million to improve air quality in the Sacramento region of California;
• $4 million for bike paths and public parks near New River in Calexico, Calif.; and
• $4 million for streetscape, pedestrian improvements in Clarkson, Ga.The 2008 transportation appropriations bill seems likely to continue this trend, with more than $2.2 billion in earmarks. Indeed, many billions of dollars have been diverted from highway funding to other programs. As the figure shows, according to Transportation Secretary Mary Peters:
• Only 60 percent of federal gas taxes goes to the construction and maintenance of highways and bridges.
• Thirty percent goes to subsidize construction and maintenance of public transit facilities, such as bus terminals, light rail and subway systems.
• The remaining 10 percent is diverted to other projects — currently 6,000 projects — including bike paths, museums, nature trails, historic building repairs and so forth.
Despite these facts, Rep. Oberstar told the Rochester Post-Bulletin, “If you’re not prepared to invest another five cents in bridge reconstruction and road reconstruction, then God help you.” Ironically, Oberstar recently boasted that he had “secured more than $12 million in funding” for his state in a recent federal transportation and housing bill, none of which went for bridge repair. Instead, the funding Obserstar secured included $10 million for a commuter rail line, $250,000 for a bike and hike trail, $200,000 for bus services in Duluth and $150,000 for the Mesabi Academy of Kidspeace in Buhl.
Conclusion. Fifty years ago, the federal government played an important role in creating a national transportation system. The federal gasoline tax financed this effort, ensuring that drivers paid for the system. The Highway Trust Fund should be dedicated to building and maintaining roads and bridges. If trust fund spending were properly prioritized, bridge repairs could be funded by current national and state fuel taxes.
To protect poorer American citizens as they struggle to make ends meet, Congress should end pork-barrel projects and earmarks, and devote the monies in the Highway Trust Fund to critical infrastructure repair and expansion. If bike paths and public transit are worthwhile priorities, an excise tax could be levied on bicycles and jogging shoes, and fees for public transit could be raised.
Heidi Sommer is a policy intern and H. Sterling Burnett is a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis.