Members of Congress blame the depletion of the Federal Highway Trust Fund on the ever-increasing fuel economy of vehicles and the failure to adjust the fuel tax to inflation. These factors have resulted in more miles traveled on the country’s highways, leading to heavier traffic and more wear and tear on roads, and not enough money to upgrade and repair them because of rising construction and material costs.
So Congress wants you to pay more at the pump. Last week, a bipartisan proposal from the Senate recommended a 12-cent per gallon increase in the 18.4-cent federal fuel tax — a 6-cent increase in each of the next two years — as well as future automatic inflation adjustments to spare lawmakers from the inconvenient process of voting to raises your taxes again and again and again.
It’s true that improved fuel economy has decreased the amount of fuel tax revenue per vehicle-mile traveled. It’s true that highway material costs have gone up since 1993, the last time the federal fuel tax was increased. And it’s true that highways across America are in desperate need of widening and repair.
But Congress itself bears great blame for the state of the highway trust fund because lawmakers have, over recent decades, spent huge sums of fuel tax money on things other than federal highways. The tax was created to build and maintain the interstate highway system. Now more than 25 percent of fuel taxes are spent on non-highway projects such as bike paths, trails, safety campaigns and mass transit. Billions of dollars have been poured into transit boondoggles that move only a small percentage of travelers at a far higher cost than highways, forcing motorists to subsidize rail lines they don’t use. Senators make no secret that they want a good portion of a fuel tax increase to fund more big-city mass transit.
This is a predictable result of Capitol Hill’s political process. Highway funding triggers a lobbying frenzy that creates winners and losers. Many states collect far more fuel tax revenue than is paid by their drivers, while many other states don’t get back what they put in. Washington is an expensive, inefficient middle man motivated by delegation clout instead of need.
This newspaper endorsed an increase in the Clark County fuel tax because those revenues must be spent locally. Southern Nevada finally is getting its proportional share of state fuel tax revenue. But Nevadans cannot be assured they’ll realize any benefit from an increased federal fuel tax.
Instead of boosting the federal fuel tax, a better idea is to have Washington stop collecting the tax altogether and let each state keep 100 percent of the existing levy. States know their infrastructure needs far better than Congress.
Stop making Americans pay the federal fuel tax and then beg for it back.