President Joe Biden’s nominee as transportation secretary, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, is likely to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate later this week, making him the first openly gay member of a president’s cabinet. The Senate Commerce Committee gave him the thumb’s up Wednesday morning on a 21-3 vote. And in confirmation hearings held last week, only one issue seemed to trip up the 39-year-old, Harvard-educated Rhodes scholar. Asked whether the Biden administration might support an increase in the gasoline tax, Mr. Buttigieg replied that all options ought to be “on the table.” Immediately after the meeting, his spokesman stepped forward to correct the record, suggesting that, indeed, a lot of options were on the table, but raising the federal motor fuel tax wasn’t among them.
That’s too bad because, as Mr. Buttigieg surely knows (and as his toughest inquisitors in the Senate know as well, but won’t always publicly admit it), a gas tax increase is badly overdue. Unlike other forms of revenue, the gas tax isn’t pegged to inflation, so the current rate is stuck at the 1993 level of 18.4 cents per gallon. Gasoline prices are much higher in 2021. Simply adjust the rate for inflation and the federal gas tax would be 33 cents per gallon today. And getting frozen in time for 28 years has consequences: Aging U.S. transportation infrastructure has been in decline. States like Maryland have been willing to raise their own fuel taxes, but the problems were manifest long before the COVID-19 pandemic. The Federal Highway Trust Fund has been propped up with general funds (and given the overall deficit, that means borrowed money) ,but the growing gap between Trust Fund revenue (chiefly the gas tax) and anticipated spending is expected to reach $188 billion by 2030.
Raising the federal gas tax used to be a fairly routine periodic exercise. President George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton both pushed through increases. Congress used them as opportunities to direct transportation spending (what is denounced today as “pork barrel,” but was also instrumental in coalition-building). But now it’s seen as an attack on the working class, as a jobs killer, and, as the confirmation hearing demonstrated, a political loser. One problem is that most Americans don’t understand how it works, how it pays for the construction and maintenance of roads, bridges and public transit and how congestion, the inevitable result of infrastructure neglect, can be even more costly to them. The gas tax is the kind of financial mechanism that ought to be popular as a classic user’s fee: The more you pay in, the more direct benefit you receive in return. In other words: You get what you pay for.
It’s particularly unfortunate that President Biden has no appetite for the gas tax increase, because it’s also an effective tool in the battle against climate change. The plan he released Wednesday to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 would surely be improved if Americans faced higher gasoline prices, given that the transportation sector accounts for more than one-quarter of emissions. That’s not a happy thought, of course. Who wants higher prices for anything? But, when adjusted for inflation, U.S. gasoline prices are incredibly low today (December’s AAA average of $2.25 per gallon is not only nearly $2 per gallon below the record high prices of 2008, it’s actually cheaper than the 17 cents per gallon of 1931, which would equate to $2.89 today). That gives motorists a perverse incentive to buy gas-guzzling vehicles and use them to excess. And the more pollution they crank out of their tailpipes, the more it will cost them in the long run, if not in life-shortening air pollution, then in the worst effects of climate change from rising sea levels and worsening storms to droughts, forest fires, loss of fresh drinking water and political upheaval that will inevitably follow such disasters.
Granted, it’s easier for our cowardly elected leaders, Democrats and Republicans alike, to let roads, bridges and subways systems degrade; to give lip service to failing infrastructure but do nothing serious about it; to keep borrowing against the future so as to maintain the illusion that you can have 21st century transportation at 20th century prices. But someday, Americans are bound to wise up. Mr. Buttigieg would be smart to use his platform to at least educate his fellow citizens on this worsening problem that even a belated gas tax increase can’t fully address given how fuel-sipping hybrid and electric vehicles are fundamentally changing the equation. A gas tax not only deserves to be on the table, it merits a prominent seat.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.