Infrastructure and the Gas Tax

Infrastructure and the Gas Tax

By Robert Scott

All writers in Op Ed are here to inform and acknowledge issues of importance to our communities, however these writings represent the views and opinions of the authors and not necessarily of The Advertiser.

As a graduation present from college, we gave my daughter Kathryn an almost-new 2004 sedan. Then we all moved home to Edgefield County, and we bought a new 2005 sedan, same make as the 2004 one. Both cars lasted us for about 16 years, and recently we each replaced them with new cars. Kathryn and husband now have an electric car, which they can charge up in their garage. My new car is a gas / electric hybrid that averages over 45 miles per gallon. We are both spending much less on fuel than before, if you count Kathryn’s very slightly larger electric bill as a fuel cost.

There has been lots of news coverage lately about federal spending on our neglected national infrastructure. During the Trump administration, several planned “Infrastructure Weeks” all werepreempted by other growing concerns, and there were noinfrastructure bills presented to Congress for approval. Now the Biden administration has a huge Infrastructure Bill, with but little chance of being enacted by a Senate that seems to require at least 60 votes to do anything at all. How have we been paying for highway spending, to address that one aspect of Infrastructure? Occasionally funds have been diverted from the government’s take from other taxes, to augment the Highway Trust Fund. That fund is designed to be filled for the most part by the federal tax on gasoline. 

There are two problems with the Highway Trust Fund. The most obvious one is that it was set in 1993 at a certain number of cents per gallon – and that number has not changed. It is not hard to understand that the spending value of those cents has been cut in half in the intervening 28 years, and the backlog of unfunded repairs is now reported to be over $110 billion. There is no way that the highway gas tax could pay that bill at its present rate, and Congress is loath to raise any tax – particularly a tax that is not “progressive” at all, in the sense that those in the higher tax brackets pay the same amount per mile as those in the lower brackets. Trucks pay a lot into that fund, but trucks also cause the most wear-and-tear on the highways. The second, less obvious problem with the gas tax is that vehicles – including trucks – have much better gas mileage than they did in 1993. Everybody drives further on a gallon of gas than they once did, and so the number of miles driven is increasing relative to the take from the federal gas tax. 

What is the solution? Some in the Congress have said the tax should be brought up to the same purchasing power per gallon as it had in 1993, and then indexed to inflation to keep up with the cost of road repairs. But what about the fact that vehicles now drive farther per gallon than ever before? The number of all-electric vehicles like Kathryn’s is sure to go up dramatically over the next few years, not to mention the number of fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles. Should not those vehicles be assessed a tax based on the number of miles they drive? But how would the government know how many miles each vehicle is driven? The technology exists to track miles driven by each car, but the privacy implications are obvious. Should we trust the government with that kind of detailed knowledge about each of us and our driving habits?

So far, there have not been any great initiatives coming from Washington about how to fix the Highway Trust Fund. Setting aside the many problems to be addressed by an omnibus Infrastructure Bill, how will we fix the Highway Trust Fund? It is too important a problem to be left to Washington on its own; we each need to be thinking and coming up with ideas.