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Trump says something sensible on transportation funding, then recants

President Donald Trump says a lot of things, sometimes contradictory, often ill-considered. We would list examples, but why bother? Even his most ardent supporters know it's true (and seem to love him for it). But every once in a while, Mr. Trump stumbles upon something quite worthwhile — as happened Monday when he told a Bloomberg News reporter that he would "certainly consider" raising the federal gas tax to pay for infrastructure improvements if the money was earmarked for highways.

Naturally, people around him quickly tried to put the kibosh on that statement. Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that the president hadn't actually committed to supporting an increase but was simply keeping an open mind "out of respect" for representatives of the trucking industry who told him they want the higher tax. Conservative groups quickly posted stop signs in the off-chance Mr. Trump was serious. "Taking more money from American drivers to send to Washington is not the answer," according to a statement released by the Club for Growth. Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist (remember him?) told Bloomberg that Congress could simply save money by not funding public transit or streamlining regulations governing infrastructure instead.

That is, of course, utter nonsense. In this case, Mr. Trump's business instincts are correct. When truckers — people who pay more in gas taxes than anyone else — ask Washington to raise the tax on them, they deserve to be taken seriously. The people who drive the big rigs are no more fond of paying taxes than anyone else, but they know what's happening on America's highways, and it isn't good. As Chris Spear, head of the American Trucking Associations, testified to a Senate subcommittee last month, truckers are losing $50 billion annually to congestion, and the country needs to invest substantially more in its failing (and increasingly unsafe) roads and bridges. Experts peg the nation's backlog of highway repair projects at $740 billion with one out of every five miles regarded as being in disrepair.

Unlike many other taxes, the gas tax isn't adjusted for inflation, so it's been stuck at the same amount, 18.4 cents per gallon, for close to a quarter century. It used to be that periodic increases were fairly routine. Congress bumped the tax up in 1983, 1990 and 1993. But the anti-tax crusaders seem to have struck a chord, particularly with Republicans, and the gas tax is now one of the more high-profile levies and thus even talking about adjusting the rate for inflation is regarded as politically taboo. Opponents point to the regressive nature of the consumption tax — low-income motorists end up paying a higher percentage of their earnings on gas taxes, essentially — as an additional reason to oppose it.

But that's an extraordinarily misleading argument. First, it ignores the purpose of the gas tax which, since the Eisenhower administration, has been dedicated entirely to the Highway Trust Fund. Without more revenue, the government can't keep pace with transportation needs. And it's a double whammy. Tax revenue is not only stuck at 24-year-old levels, the situation has gotten worse thanks to fuel efficiency as there are more cars on the road but they are using less gas and thereby contributing less to the trust fund. Taxpayers have had to make up the difference, which only worsens the federal deficit.

The gas tax may be regressive, but so is the financial loss for getting stuck in traffic or paying more for insurance and car repairs because of all the potholes on the roads. The gas tax works best when it is regarded as a "user fee," meaning that roads essentially pay for themselves because the biggest users of them pay the most for them. Many states use a similar model, and they've been raising their own gas taxes to keep pace with inflation — in neighboring Pennsylvania, it's now up to 58 cents per gallon. Maryland's 33.5 cents per gallon is fairly middle of the road.

Why would anyone want federal taxpayers to subsidize highway costs instead? Even a climate change skeptic must recognize that the less petroleum the nation consumes, the better — for public health, for national security and for the environment. Right now, gasoline is artificially cheap because it doesn't reflect the true cost of maintaining transportation infrastructure, and that's a destructive policy. Better to raise prices at the pump gradually and in a manner that benefits U.S. consumers than wait until it spikes overnight because OPEC nations are cracking down or production or there's a war or some other interruption in the flow of oil. We don't have to act like the Europeans where gas taxes run 20 times higher, but we ought not act like it's 1994 when a gallon of gas cost $1.11 and first-class stamp was 29 cents.

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