Transportation reformers around the country have long been disappointed at politicians’ unwillingness to raise the gas tax to pay for infrastructure. It seems, to many, an obvious and necessary solution for the chronic underfunding of our transportation system. Meanwhile, to the politicians, it is just as obvious that raising consumer taxes during a recession is a bad idea.
The Leadership Initiative on Transportation Solvency, a project of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has come up with a solution.
The three principals of the Initiative – former senator (and presidential candidate and basketball star) Bill Bradley (a Democrat), former governor and DHS secretary Tom Ridge (a Republican), and former comptroller general David Walker (an Independent) – aren’t transportation experts, which Carnegie Endowment President Jessica Matthews says is an asset, since they have “no constituencies to serve.” Indeed, their interest is in creating a paradigm for “the type of fundamental review and reexamination that must be undertaken with every major government program and policy,” according to Walker. All three spoke at an event yesterday to launch the 125-page report, “Road to Recovery: Transforming America’s Transportation.”
A New Way to Raise Transportation Revenues
In addition to other reforms, the three are advocating a formula for increasing transportation revenues in a way that might be more politically and economically palatable.
First, they say, tax gas when the price is on the way down. That’s the way to make it less controversial. They’d like to see a variable gas tax of anywhere between zero and 43 cents per gallon. It would go up or down counter-cyclically based on oil prices, rising when oil prices diminish.
The problem, of course, is that oil prices aren’t expected to diminish. Sure, they were on their way down over the last few months (and then spiked again last week), but over the long term, as scarcity increases, so will prices. The Bradley/Ridge/Walker strategy, then, would leave us with a lower gas tax – and less ability to pay for infrastructure. Right?