The federal gas tax is a primary means of funding highway construction and maintenance. The problem is that it is not indexed for inflation, so while road repair costs creep upward, the gas tax stays the same.
While that might be good news for American pocketbooks, it's devastating for America's highways. The tax was last increased in 1993, meaning that drivers are paying more than a third less into the Highway Trust Fund than they were at the beginning of the Clinton administration.
Moreover, the sluggish economy, high gas prices, and environmental concerns have led Americans to drive less and to buy more efficient vehicles. The lower demand for gasoline has further cut into federal taxes.
The result has been neglect of America's roadways, according to the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission. Its 2009 report suggests that the federal government needs to spend roughly $100 billion per year to maintain and improve its infrastructure. The Senate transportation bill offers $109 billion over two years.
“The gap between what we’re investing and what we need is just enormous,” says Rob Atkinson, former chairman of the NSTIFC. “And they make almost no effort to address that.”
The problem is that paying for American infrastructure more fully means raising taxes on someone.
One solution, pegging the gas tax to inflation – or raising it outright – would risk further angering Americans already angry about gas prices. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll showed 65 percent of Americans disapprove of how President Obama has handled gasoline prices, compared with 26 percent who approve.