Thursday, August 16, 2007

"The importance of raising the federal gasoline tax is clear to everyone but President Bush, apparently."

Raise gas tax to prop up bridge maintenance

August 16, 2007

Editorial Board
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

The importance of raising the federal gasoline tax is clear to everyone but President Bush, apparently.

Before starting his vacation, Bush lashed out at the growing number of politicians calling for an increase in the gas tax. In doing so, he attempted to turn a public safety issue into a political one.

The gas tax helps fund the construction and maintenance of our nation's highways and bridges. As we've noted before, the tax, 18.4 cents per gallon, has not increased since 1993 and has lost 30 percent of its value to inflation. Rising construction costs have further diminished its value.

In Texas, the need for increased federal funding is particularly acute. The state gas tax, 20 cents per gallon, hasn't been raised since 1991. With gas prices already high, it's unlikely that legislators will raise the gas tax anytime soon.

Inadequate funding has forced transportation authorities to employ patchwork measures to maintain our nation's crumbling infrastructure. Which is why more than 73,000 bridges are structurally deficient in our country, including 2,219 in Texas. "Maintenance needs are quickly outpacing funding," said Randy Cox, the Transportation Department's state bridge engineer. "We have limited resources to address bridge needs."

The Minnesota bridge collapse brought these issues to the forefront, changing the opinion of some politicians previously opposed to a gas tax increase. Two prominent Republicans, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Alaska Rep. Don Young, say they now support increasing the tax. Young, a former chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said, "We have to, as a Congress, grasp this problem. And yes, I would even suggest: Fund this problem with a tax. ... May the sky not fall on me."

Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., captured this bipartisan sentiment by proposing legislation that would raise the gas tax by 5 cents for the next three years.

The president argues that raising the gas tax would just fund pet projects, such as the infamous "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska. "Before we raise taxes, which could affect economic growth, I would strongly urge the Congress to examine how they set priorities," he said. "And if bridges are a priority, let's make sure we set that priority first and foremost before we raise taxes."

Though there is some truth in that statement, it's going to be difficult for politicians to get away with pork-barrel politics as usual now that our nation's infrastructure is a high-profile issue.

President Bush shouldn't gamble with the safety of American citizens just because he fears that some of the money raised from a tax increase will fund pork-barrel projects. To avoid a repeat of the Minnesota tragedy, Congress needs to consider raising the federal gas tax soon.

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