Dip in Gas Prices Could be Chance to Improve U.S. Highways, Bridges

The plunging price of gasoline presents an opportunity to upgrade the nation's crumbling transportation infrastructure.

by Walla Walla Union-Bulletin / December 17, 2014
The Washington State Patrol has confirmed that an oversized load struck the trusses that supported the bridge causing the collapse. Photo courtesy of the Washington State Department of Transportation Washington State Department of Transportation

(TNS) -- The plunging price of gasoline from about $4 to $3 a gallon has done more than allowed drivers to keep a few more of their hard-earned dollars, it also presents an opportunity to upgrade the nation's crumbling transportation infrastructure.

Currently, a tax on gasoline sales provides the bulk of the funding for road maintenance and construction in many states, including Washington State. The federal government, too, taxes gasoline to fund construction and repair of the nation's highways and bridges.

That formula has been successful and equitable for decades.

But changes in technology and soaring gasoline prices have caused a drop in tax collections. Today's vehicles are more fuel efficient than ever, which results in less tax revenue. The high price of gasoline has resulted in many people reducing the amount of driving they do for vacations and weekend getaways.

In addition, hybrid and electric cars require very little or no gasoline, so the growth of their use also cuts into gas-tax revenues.

The drop in gasoline prices is welcome -- very welcome. It will result in consumers having a bit more disposable income, which should help the economy.

Motorists, pleased they are saving at the pump, would not feel significant adverse effects if gasoline taxes were raised a few pennies a gallon.

This increase would, however, result in millions of dollars being collected so the nation can begin a serious modernizing of the nation's roads, highways and bridges

However, the increase in gasoline taxes should be put in place only temporarily and should immediately be cut if the price of gas crosses an agreed upon threshold -- perhaps $3.75 or $4.

Ultimately, the nation and the states must quit relying on gasoline sales to fund roads. Day after day more hybrid and electric cars are on highways, and their drivers are not paying their fair share of the cost of the roads they drive on.

So for tax equity, perhaps as a small amount is added to gas taxes an annual fee for hybrid and electric vehicles could be imposed in relation to the gasoline tax paid by those with conventional cars.

When the price of gasoline goes up, which it will at some point, the new taxes imposed could be reduced as a way to cut the overall cost of gasoline for consumers.

Adjustments, too, could be made in the electric-hybrid fee.

As the number of hybrid and electric cars increase, the taxes and fees could be looked at to spread the contributions to make the system as fair as possible.

Over time, it should be possible to phase out gas taxes and replace them with an equitable user-fee system.

In the short term, however, the goal should be to use this dip in gas prices to raise revenue to improve the nation's infrastructure.

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