Flanked by organized labor, business and transportation leaders Wednesday, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., proposed nearly doubling the federal gasoline tax to address the country's growing backlog of infrastructure repair and maintenance.
Congress hasn't raised the 18.4-cents-per-gallon tax since 1993, and didn't index it to inflation, so it buys considerably less than it did 20 years ago. And if Congress doesn't do something, the highway trust fund will run dry by the end of next year.
Blumenauer's bill would phase in a 15-cent increase over three years, to 33.4 cents.
"Today, with inflation and increased fuel efficiency for vehicles, the average motorist is paying about half as much per mile as they did in 1993," Blumenauer said.
The tax generates about $35 billion in annual revenue, well short of the $54 billion in federal highway and transit funds the states have been receiving. On average, states rely on the federal funds for half their transportation needs.
But neither lawmakers nor President Barack Obama have shown much inclination to increase the tax. Obama's own bipartisan deficit-reduction commission recommended phasing in a 15-cent increase three years ago, but the commission's work was largely ignored.
Rather than raise new revenue or cut spending, Congress has borrowed more than $50 billion from the Treasury in the past five years, adding to the deficit and ensuring that taxpayers will be on the hook no matter what.
Meanwhile, states aren't waiting for Congress to come to the rescue. Several have increased their own gasoline taxes this year or replaced the per-gallon fee with a percentage-based sales tax.
Blumenauer cited a broad coalition in support of his bill, from the Chamber of Commerce and construction and trucking industries to the AFL-CIO, transit agencies and bicycle activists. He said such groups were ready to back lawmakers who voted for the bill.
He also noted that when faced with a similar situation three decades ago, Congress more than doubled the gasoline tax. The tax had been stuck at 4.5 cents a gallon since the Eisenhower administration and hadn't kept up with the country's infrastructure needs.
With the stroke of a pen on Jan. 5, 1983, the tax increased to 9.5 cents a gallon. The president who signed it: Ronald Reagan.