Senators propose fuel tax hike, prepare for political fight

Updated Jun 24, 2014
Photo: Kevin Jones/CCJPhoto: Kevin Jones/CCJ

A Southern Republican and a New England Democrat say they’re tired of short-term patches for the federal transportation system and the unwillingness of Congress to find a solution for the depleted Highway Trust Fund, so they’re pursuing the obvious solution: a substantial increase in the tax on gas and diesel at the pump.

The proposal by Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Chris Murphy of Connecticut would raise the fuel tax six cents a year over two years, then index the tax to inflation. The federal fuel tax has not been raised since 1993, and since then the revenue it generates has lost nearly half its buying power.

“For too long, Congress has shied away from taking serious action to update our country’s aging infrastructure,” says Murphy. “We’re currently facing a transportation crisis that will only get worse if we don’t take bold action to fund the Highway Trust Fund. I know raising the gas tax isn’t an easy choice, but we’re not elected to make easy decisions – we’re elected to make the hard ones.”

To offset the revenue raised from increasing the fuel tax, Murphy and Corker propose providing net tax relief for American families and businesses. An example would be extending some of the tax provisions in the “tax extenders” bill that already have broad, bipartisan support, creating potentially billions of dollars in permanent tax relief over the next 10 years alone, the senators suggest.

“Growing up in Tennessee as a conservative, I learned that if something was important enough to have, it was important enough to pay for,” says Corker. “In Washington, far too often, we huff and puff about paying for proposals that are unpopular, yet throw future generations under the bus when public pressure mounts on popular proposals that have broad support. Congress should be embarrassed that it has played chicken with the Highway Trust Fund and allowed it to become one of the largest budgeting failures in the federal government.”

A number of business, labor and construction groups have already lined up in support of the Murphy-Corker proposal.

American Trucking Associations officials praised the plan because it preserves the “user pays” principle.

“We have long said that the fuel tax is the fairest, most efficient way to fund our nation’s infrastructure and this practical, bipartisan proposal put forward by Sens. Murphy and Corker would put the Highway Trust Fund on the path to solvency and provide the revenues we need to maintain a 21st Century transportation network,” says ATA President and CEO Bill Graves.

Likewise, the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates credited Murphy and Corker for proposing a transportation funding solution that does not include tolling existing interstates.

“The fuel tax is far less costly to drivers and wastes far less money than toll collection,” says Miles Morin, spokesman for the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates. “That legislators would propose raising the fuel tax, a move that has been perceived to be impossibly unpopular, rather than try to toll existing interstates, reinforces the fact that tolling existing interstates is terrible public policy and totally unviable for states to implement.”

NATSO, the national association representing truckstops and travel plazas, also applauded the proposal, calling it “the most and efficient means” for raising money for transportation infrastructure.

Some conservative political groups, however, have come out against the plan.

“This is a $164 billion dollar tax increase, plain and simple. A gas tax hike would be both bad policy and terribly anti-growth,” says Club for Growth President Chris Chocola. “It’s not an example of political courage to avoid reforming a broken system. Instead of standing up to the special interests who feast on the chronically bankrupt Highway Trust Fund year after year, Sen. Corker and Sen. Murphy have essentially decided that throwing more money into a black hole is a good path forward. It’s not. Rather than perpetuate this failed system, Congress should devolve highway funding to the states and let them fund their own infrastructure needs.”