It was never going to be easy for the Republican-controlled Congress to pass an increase to the federal gas tax—a tax that finances the Highway Trust Fund and pays for roads and bridges around the country. Last raised in 1993 to 18.4 cents per gallon, the tax has since lost much of its value, especially with the rise of fuel-efficient cars. With the Highway Trust Fund running huge annual deficits, plans for many infrastructure projects and repairs have been left hanging out to dry.
There were signs that raising the federal gas tax was possible, as when Republican Senators John Thune of South Dakota and chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said in early January that a gas tax increase couldn’t be ruled out, and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, later agreed with him.
Well, forget it. Because last week more than 50 conservative groups, a number of them funded through the Koch brothers’ network, sent a letter to Congress expressing adamant opposition to raising the federal gas tax.
“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 me. “This letter just killed our momentum, I think permanently.”
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.
As Angie Schmitt, a writer for Streetsblog USA, put it:
The billionaire-friendly coalition is trying to play the populist card. 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.
The first signature on the letter belongs to Brent Wm. Gardner, vice president of government affairs for Americans for Prosperity, the organization founded in 2005 by the billionaire brothers, Charles and David Koch. In my feature in the current issue of The American Prospect magazine, I look at Chris Christie's cancellation of a new rail tunnel desperately needed in the Northeast, and the role that the national Republican Party and anti-tax groups played in the New Jersey governor and prospective presidential candidate's decision to kill the project known as ARC (Access to the Region’s Core). Now, in the wake of damage from Superstorm Sandy, civil engineers are unsure that the tunnels currently in use by hundreds of thousands of commuters between New York and New Jersey will hold out for another 10 years.
Building a new tunnel would have required Christie to raise his state’s low gas tax, a move that the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity has been rallying against for years. From my article, “Blind to the Future”:
Mike Proto, the New Jersey communications director for Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-funded anti-tax group, says that Christie’s decision to kill the ARC project “was one of the best he’s made.”
It’s unclear what it will really take to get this country to invest in its future. We should pray it’s not a big, preventable disaster that kills thousands of people. Building new tunnels, fixing broken bridges, and making America just generally safe to live in should be an urgent bipartisan priority for everyone.
It should be, and it used to be.