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Raise the Federal Gas Tax to Repair America's Bad Roads

The Asphalt Jungle

If your kid came home from high school with a big fat "D" on his French test, what would you do? That's right: You'd grab him by the Xbox and march him straight back to Madame Merdealors until he fully understood how to get his "oui oui" back on track. Well, in its most recent "Report Card for America's Infrastructure" (2013), the American Society of Civil Engineers graded our country's roads with a big fat "D." And what are we and our exalted elected officials doing about it? Pretty much nothing.

America's roads are so bad—and have been so bad for so long—today's motorists have apparently reached terminal apathy. Mention the potholes, the collapsing bridges, and the traffic snarls due to unimproved byways, and most will shrug it off with a listless, "Hey, that's the way it is."

This is not the America that finished the Panama Canal and landed the Eagle on the moon.

Don't look to Capitol Hill for answers. Neither most Demo­crats nor most Republicans want to do the right thing. As I write this, Congress has just passed a stopgap measure to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent for another three months. At that point, the unlikely alliance of Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., will try to pass their 1,000-page compromise bill to boost highway spending over the next three years and set transportation policy through 2022.

While I applaud the bipartisan attempt to do something about that ugly "D" grade blighting our roads, in truth the bill is little more than a shell game—you could even call it smoke and mirrors—to shuffle funds around until a little spills into the highway-funding pool. Among its other "brilliant" concepts to dig up funding, the bill proposes to expand the power of private debt agencies to collect taxes (I foresee a new opportunity for Dog the Bounty Hunter) while also raising $9 billion by selling off 101 million barrels of oil from our Strategic Petroleum Reserve—roughly 15 percent of the total. To me, this makes about as much sense as eating your earthquake-survival provisions because you'd rather not go to the store.

At the risk of bringing up a reality akin to "this hypodermic needle is gonna hurt," I have a proposal that doesn't require 1,000 pages—or even one full page. I can write it on a scrap of paper using only a single sentence.

Raise the gas tax.

I can already hear the cries of "Of course St. Antoine doesn't care if pump prices go up; he drives shiny test cars fueled by a corporate gas card." Nope. Apart from the infrequent road tests I write these days, I pay for my own cars and my gasoline out of my own pocket. But I'm perfectly willing to spend a little more to enjoy first-class roads, new and improved traffic arteries, and reduced congestion. Every one of us who drives would benefit, no complicated funds-juggling or confusing legal loopholes required.

The federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon hasn't increased since 1993—largely because even suggesting such a thing, most lawmakers believe, is political suicide. Yet not only is total tax income dropping relative to inflation, it's being steadily shrunk by the reduced consumption of today's increasingly fuel-efficient cars. Upping the gas tax is a win-win. Those who use roads the most would pay the most and also benefit from a vastly modernized driving infrastructure. At the same time, higher fuel prices remove incentives for unnecessary road trips. They reduce traffic, pollution, and, yes, additional road wear.

Does such a proposal soak people who struggle to pay for gas even at its relatively low current prices? Hardly. Increasing the gas tax by, say, just 20 cents per gallon, potentially generating billions in road-repairing funds, would raise the average cost of a tank of fuel by only about $3. That's one fewer mocha-soy Frappuccino a week. What's more, an increased gas tax could very well reduce the average motorist's annual driving expenses. A 2015 report by the national research institute TRIP estimates that poor roads cost drivers as much as $1,000 a year in vehicle damage, added fuel costs, and productivity lost to delays. That's an annual loss of $109.3 billion nationwide.

Let me put the whole conundrum another way: Think the typical high-school student wouldn't pay $3 a week to get an "A" in French?