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The federal gas tax, which has sat at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993, finances the dwindling Highway Trust Fund and pays for roads and bridges around the country.(Photo: Carol Von Canon/flickr/cc)

Oil-Soaked Interest Groups Doing Their Best to Kill Mass Transit

'Eliminating all funding for transit, biking, and walking, which people who can’t afford a car rely on? Not a problem to these guys.'

Deirdre Fulton

Fossil fuel-backed, billionaire-friendly interests are doing their best to kill any increase in the federal gas tax—in turn, hobbling efforts to boost mass transit or fix America's crumbling infrastructure.

Last Wednesday, a laundry list of about 50 anti-government groups, including the Koch Brothers-backed groups like Americans for Prosperity, Freedom Partners, and Club for Growth, sent a letter (pdf) to Congress stating "strong opposition" to raising the gas tax. The tax, which has sat at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993, finances the dwindling Highway Trust Fund and pays for roads and bridges around the country.

Earlier this year—with gas prices hovering at just over $2 a gallon—there were hopeful signs that conservatives, who have in the past vehemently opposed raising the gas tax, might be willing to bend. As Ben Adler notes for Grist:

In the first week of January, Senate Republican Conference chair John Thune (R-S.D.) and Environment and Public Works Committee chair James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said Republicans might want to boost the gas tax. Days later, Senate Finance Committee Chair Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said a higher gas tax is "a small price to pay for the best highway system in the world." Inhofe admitted to The Hill that his colleagues would probably reject covering the entire Highway Trust Fund shortfall with new gas tax revenue, but he suggested that maybe they could combine a modest gas tax increase with another new source of funding.

But last week's letter seems to have dampened whatever level of support may have existed.

"Everyone knew it would be difficult, but you had a lot of senators and representatives saying privately that they would be open to raising the gas tax, so long as it could be framed in a certain way," a high-ranking American Public Transit Association official told Rachel Cohen of The American Prospect. "This letter just killed our momentum, I think permanently."

Cohen reports: "While incredibly frustrating, this move is unsurprising given the rise of anti-tax groups committed to blocking serious public investment in national infrastructure. In addition to opposing the gas tax increase, the letter also calls for an end to all federal funding for biking, walking and public transit. Ever so disingenuously, the organizations claim they just want to look out for the needs of poor people."

Indeed, the letter claims that "[a] higher gas tax means higher prices not just on gas, but on goods and services throughout the economy. These increased costs would inevitably be passed down to consumers, resulting in a regressive tax hike on middle- and lower-income Americans."

The letter also criticizes Washington for continuing "to spend federal dollars on projects that have nothing to do with roads like bike paths and transit." Or, as Adler put it, "the Koch brothers just kicked mass transit in the face."

But people who can't afford to own and maintain cars rely on such alternative methods of transportation.

"The billionaire-friendly coalition is trying to play the populist card," Angie Schmitt writes at Streetsblog USA. "Raising the gas tax to pay for roads, they say, is 'regressive' because poor people will pay more than rich people if the gas tax is increased. But eliminating all funding for transit, biking, and walking, which people who can’t afford a car rely on? Not a problem to these guys."

Of course it isn't, Adler writes at Grist, given that "[t]he Kochs make their money largely in fossil fuels."

"They, and other backers of conservative pressure groups, oppose the gas tax because they see it as a disincentive for driving," he continues. "The Kochs especially hate public transportation because it gives their consumers an alternative to driving."

President Barack Obama's budget plan would raise money for transportation projects with a one-time tax on the profits that U.S. corporations have amassed overseas. White House press secretary Josh Earnest has said Obama has no plans to raise the gas tax.

The idea isn't entirely off the table, however. As NPR reported Wednesday, Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer, "a Democrat who sports a bicycle pin on his lapel, is not giving up."

Blumenauer has introduced a bill to raise the gas tax by a nickel a gallon in each of the next three years, and to be indexed to inflation after that. He has the backing of groups across the political spectrum, from the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO to the American Trucking Associations and AAA.

"Nobody likes the idea of paying more," AAA vice president Kathleen Bower told NPR. "But what we do know is that our members want better and safer roads. Now is a good time because the impact will not feel as painful."

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