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U.S. bridge repair debate: Is a gas tax the answer?

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Posted at 1:05 PM, Jan 20, 2015
and last updated 2015-01-21 17:38:05-05

How should the nation pay for needed repairs to bridges and roadways?

While recent political discussions have been dominated by national security, employee earnings and law enforcement tactics, the National Highway Trust has dwindled with no permanent solution. The Congressional Budget Office said the trust is spending $50 million per year and will have a $167 billion shortfall from 2015-2024 if the money going into the fund remains the same.

One potential fix, some say, is to raise the federal gas tax from 18.4 cents per gallon.

With the national gas price currently hovering around $2 per gallon — more than $1.20 less per gallon than a year ago — the federal government has a unique chance to replenish the trust fund without piling on consumers, some say.

Several politicians throughout the year have pushed for different variations of what would be the first gas tax increase since 1993, when the tax went from 14.1 cents per gallon to 18.4 cents per gallon.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) introduced a proposal this summer that would push the gas tax up 12 cents throughout the next two years. After the two years, the tax would be tied to inflation so to raise money naturally without forcing another vote.

Each penny of federal gas tax — states and local governments tax can tax gas as well — creates about $1.75 billion, according to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, a national transportation construction trade group. About $1.4 billion of that money goes to the Highway Trust.

Part of the problem with the tax is that people are using more fuel-efficient vehicles and driving less, which has cut down the use of gas and thus, impacted the collections of gas tax.

But not everyone sees raising the gas tax as a benefit. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, released a report in March stating that upping the tax would hurt the economy.

In a business roundtable in December, President Barack Obama said there are political difficulties in increasing the tax.

“In fairness to members of Congress, votes on gas tax are really tough,” Obama said. “Gas prices are one of those things that really bug people. When they go up, they’re greatly attuned to them. When they do down, they don’t go down enough. And so, historically, I think there’s been great hesitance.

“The gas tax hasn’t been increased for 20 years. There’s a reason for that.”

Obama, however, said national infrastructure is a place where the United States if falling behind and the country needs to find a long-term solution.

The need for improved infrastructure, however, is great, according the American Society of Civil Engineers. The nonprofit produces regular report cards on state and national infrastructure.

"We've been facing for the last couple of years what's become an ongoing crisis with the Highway Trust Fund," said Brian Pallasch, managing director of government relations and infrastructure initiatives for ASCE. 

Prior to the collapse of a Cincinnati, Ohio bridge on Sunday night, the nonprofit gave U.S. roads a “D” grade and U.S. bridges a “C+” grade.

Pallasch said though the Congressional Budget Office shows a shortfall, the shortfall does not account for new spending. 

"The revenues are not keeping up with the needs of the program," he said. 

Pallasch said the gas tax would perhaps be the easiest way to pay for the program, but the ASCE is open to other solutions. 

As of Monday afternoon, the Ohio Department of Transportation had not determined a cause for the collapse, which killed a construction worker, injured a truck driver and closed Interstate 75 South indefinitely.

The bridge did not meet current design standards and was under demolition when the incident occurred. A new bridge opened last week.