The summer travel season is upon us, and for many millions of Americans, that means getting in the family car and hitting the road. Unfortunately, our roads are hitting back.
As we have noted in this space several times, the Highway Trust Fund, the principal source of federal monies for surface transportation improvements, is broke. At 18.4 cents per gallon, the federal excise tax on gasoline hasn't been generating enough money to sustain the fund.
Everybody knows it, and everybody knows why: The tax hasn't been raised since 1993. Twenty years of improving fuel efficiency and gradual inflation have taken their toll. Our federal gas tax, which is just about the lowest in the world, would have to be raised to around 30 cents per gallon just to make up for the effect of inflation.
And that's just what Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) have proposed to do: raise the tax by 12 cents over a two-year period, so that Congress won't have to transfer money from the general treasury to cover shortfalls in the trust fund.
We like the idea, and we particularly like the idea that it's a bipartisan proposal that has some support on both sides of the political divide. That means it might actually be doable, a rare quality in Washington these days.
We still harbor hopes for long-term reforms in the way we divide transportation money into mode-specific silos, but the more pressing problem is that the silo is empty. Sometime in August, a whole lot of road construction and bridge repairs could grind to a halt.
At this writing, however, the White House isn't supporting the plan, but we're holding out hope that it will warm to the idea as the summer wears on. If nothing else, it's an opening for further negotiations.
We don't get very many bipartisan (i.e., doable) proposals out of this Congress. When the rare one comes along, the White House should make the most of it.
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After expressing our support for an increase in the gas tax, we hasten to add that the federal levy is a travel-related tax that we tolerate because it is dedicated to transportation improvements and remains low by global standards.
We continue to oppose taxes that don't meet that standard, and there are plenty of them -- including the forthcoming increase in the TSA security fee on airline travelers, a portion of which will soon go to the treasury rather than to pay for traveler security. This is yet another case of government taxing people merely because they are traveling.
Fortunately, somebody is trying to do something about that. A dozen congressmen led by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) have been pushing something called the Edstar Act, an acronym for End Discriminatory State Taxes on Automobile Renters.
This bill would bar state and local governments from imposing taxes on car rentals or car rental businesses that exceed the prevailing tax rate on the rental of other property or the operation of other types of businesses.
Some might call it "special interest legislation" in the sense that it would benefit the car rental industry, but to our way of thinking, it seeks to put an end to the onerous practice whereby localities soak visitors just because they are visitors rather than voters.
Given the political realities, this small bill is unlikely to rise to the top of the pile and become law, but it should.