“Today, as this bill becomes law, America ends a period of decline in her vast and world-famous transportation system. Because of the prompt and bipartisan action of Congress, we can now ensure for our children a special part of their heritage — a network of highways and mass transit that has enabled our commerce to thrive, our country to grow, and our people to roam freely and easily to every corner of our land.”
— President Ronald Reagan in 1983,
signing a bill that more than
doubled the federal gasoline tax.
Over its almost 60-year history, the federal government’s Highway Trust Fund has financed much of the transportation infrastructure upon which this country and its economy were built. It certainly built metro Atlanta as we now know it.
However, the federal gasoline tax that has long served as the trust fund’s main source of revenue is no longer sufficient to meet the demands placed upon it. As a result, the highway trust fund is expected to go bankrupt sometime in July, meaning state and local construction projects dependent on federal funding would be halted all over the country unless Congress finds a solution.
And the solution is obvious: Raise the gasoline tax to its historic norms. But because we have become a nation unwilling to invest in ourselves and our future, because we have been encouraged by our leaders to behave like spoiled children, demanding what we want without being asked to sacrifice for it, because we have undermined the very notion of collective responsibility for the collective good, Congress finds itself unable to act.
In fact, I’d go so far as to argue that our inability to do something so clearly needed as a gasoline tax increase, something so consistent both with our past and the demands of the future, stands as an example of the many other problems confronting this country that we refuse to address.
Not coincidentally, it also highlights once again just how extreme and impractical today’s conservatives have become.
Reagan, the iconic symbol of the modern conservative movement, understood quite well the necessity of the federal government playing a leading role in transportation. He spoke openly of the economic impact, predicting that the tax increase that he was signing would create more than 300,000 jobs. Such a statement is almost inconceivable from today’s Republicans, and the more fervent a Republican’s worship of Reagan, the more inconceivable it becomes.
In his signing statement, Reagan also embraced the gasoline tax as a fair means of raising revenue and noted that it hadn’t been raised in 23 years.
“Anyone who’s driven the family car lately knows what it’s like to hit a pothole — a frustration, expense, a danger caused by poor road maintenance. Woeful tales of highway disrepair have become part of the trucking lore. Bridges are crumbling from under us in many of our older cities while growth is being stifled in our newer ones, because the transportation system can’t cope with the expanding population.”
Today, the situation is again much like that described by Reagan. The federal gasoline tax of 18.4 cents per gallon hasn’t been changed since 1993, when President Clinton forced a 4.3.cent-a-gallon increase through Congress. (At the time, not a single member of the GOP in either the House or Senate voted to support the change, an early indication of where we find ourselves today.)
And of course, over the subsequent 22 years, inflation has seriously eroded the buying power of that 18.4-cent-a-gallon tax:
Today, the 18.4-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax raises the 1993 equivalent of 11.3 cents per gallon. Restoring the tax to its 1993 level would require raising it to 30 cents per gallon, and even in an era of low gasoline prices, it is almost inconceivable that Congress would take such a step.
Something else has also changed in the past 22 years: Cars have become more fuel-efficient, largely because the auto industry was forced to do so by the federal government. In 1993, the average passenger car on the road got 20.4 miles per gallon; today, it gets 24 miles per gallon. That too has undercut revenue flowing into the Highway Trust Fund.
And if you do the math, combining the effects of 22 years of inflation with vehicles that have become considerably more fuel-efficient?
In 1993, a motorist who drove 10,000 miles paid roughly $90 a year to build and maintain the nation’s transportation infrastructure. In 2015, a motorist who drives 10,000 miles a year would pay barely half that amount when adjusted for inflation. And if you travel outside this country to other industrialized countries, you begin to appreciate just how worn-out, inefficient and outdated our transportation infrastructure has become as a result.
But again, rather than restore funding of the Highway Trust Fund, we’re getting ideas such as this, from U.S. Rep. Tom Graves of Georgia:
Graves wants to basically abolish the Highway Trust Fund, reducing the federal gasoline tax from 18.4 to 3.7 cents per gallon and giving responsibility for transportation infrastructure to the states. As he sees it, moving that responsibility from Washington into state Legislatures would reduce the influence of special interests, a claim that makes me wonder how much attention Graves paid during his own time in the Georgia General Assembly.
Under such a system, some states might indeed take that responsibility seriously; others probably would not, creating a much more patch-work and inefficient national network. Even the highly conservative Heritage Foundation, which supports Graves’ legislation, agrees that building roads and other infrastructure has been a constitutional function of the federal government from the very beginning.
In short, by trying to cripple government, Graves and his colleagues would cripple the country in the process. What they perceive as a return to the vision of Ronald Reagan and to those of the Founders is in fact an extremist repudiation of all that. It is an ideologically driven effort to turn back the clock to a time that never existed, and it has consequences for each of us, every day.