Reps join ‘Reagan’ in call for fuel tax increase; Obama concedes issue ‘tough’ for Congress

Updated Dec 5, 2014

An Oregon Democrat, a Wisconsin Republican and the spirit of Ronald Reagan came together in the House Wednesday to renew the call for an increase on fuel taxes to save the failing Highway Trust Fund. But the current president, speaking later, questioned whether any such effort can garner enough votes in this Congress or in the next.

The House event coincided with the one-year anniversary of Rep. Earl Blumenauer’s introduction of the Update, Promote and Develop America’s Transportation Essentials (UPDATE) Act and with retiring Rep. Tom Petri joining Blumenauer as a cosponsor of the legislation earlier in the week.

The UPDATE Act would phase in a 15 cent increase to the gas tax over a period of three years and would index it to inflation.

The Congressmen were joined by a cutout of former President Ronald Reagan, who called on Congress to raise the gas tax during his Thanksgiving Day Address in 1982.

“I want to thank Tom for his leadership on this issue and for joining me on this bill,” said Blumenauer. “He has been a champion for common sense for many years in Congress. Like President Reagan, he knows that that transportation funding was not, and should never be, a partisan issue. We all use our roads, bridges and rail, whether we’re Republicans or Democrats, rural or urban. Reagan also knew that the gas tax is actually a user fee, which means that those who use the roads the most are the ones paying for them. This should be our last gas tax increase ever, as we look for fairer and more sustainable funding methods, but it’s necessary to bridge the gap and keep our country moving.”

Petri suggested that a fuel tax increase is the more fiscally responsible route to take, compared to “budget gimmicks that fool taxpayers” and increase debt.

“Ronald Reagan supported raising the gas tax back in 1982 because he believed in funding American infrastructure in a responsible way,” Petri said. “I think he was right, and it’s the best course of action we can take at this time.”

Blumenauer laid out the numbers:

  • The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the United State’s surface transportation infrastructure requires more than $2 trillion of investment in order to remain economically competitive.
  • In 2011, the Federal Highway Administration estimated that over $70.9 billion worth of repairs were needed merely to maintain safe bridges.
  • Even just to maintain current infrastructure funding levels, the CBO estimates that the Highway Trust Fund will need $100 billion in addition to current tax receipts for the period over the next five years.
  • If Congress cannot find a way to make the Highway Trust Fund solvent, this continued disinvestment will mean a more than 30 percent drop in federal transportation spending by 2024.

“While we haven’t seen much action from Congress since the gas tax was raised 21 years ago, there have been a few voices of common sense and rationality,” added former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “It’s one thing to recognize the crumbling state of America’s infrastructure, but another to stand up and call for Congress to show some political courage. Congress should pass Earl’s bill to fully fund our roads, highways, and bridges.”

Several key senators likewise support the tax increase, and in the current lame duck session – before a Republican majority takes over the Senate next year – attaching language to a spending bill had considered politically possible. But one of those in favor, Sen. Tom Carper, told Politico that such legislation is very unlikely, based on a discussion with House Speaker John Boehner.

“When the speaker says, ‘We’re not going to do that in the House this year,’ it probably means it ain’t going to get done,” Carper said.

President Obama delivers remarks and participates in a Q&A during the quarterly meeting of the Business Roundtable. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)President Obama delivers remarks and participates in a Q&A during the quarterly meeting of the Business Roundtable. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Likewise, President Obama told business executives that “in fairness to members of Congress, votes on gas tax are really tough.”

Speaking Wednesday at the Business Roundtable, Obama was replying to a question from FedEx CEO Fred Smith, who cited the efforts of Blumenauer and Petri, and  suggested, “I would think that would be a great opportunity for you and the new Congress to show some bipartisan success here.”

Obama parsed the matter into short-term and long-term problems.

“Short term, we’ve got to replenish the Highway Trust Fund. And I will engage with Speaker Boehner and McConnell to see what they think they can get done to make sure that we’re not running out of money,” Obama said. “It’s probably a good time for us to redesign and think through what is a sustainable way for us on a regular basis to make the investments we need. And this may be something that we can introduce into the tax reform agenda. It may end up being too complicated and we got to do something separate, but we’ve got to figure this out. We are falling behind.”