It’s 1993. There’s a new president from Arkansas in the White House, “Jurassic Park” is crushing box office records, gas prices are hovering just north of a dollar per gallon (18.4 cents of which accounts for the recently revised federal gas tax) and you're driving around in the most popular sedan in America -- a brand new Ford Taurus.
That year, let’s say you drive that shiny new Ford Taurus 10,000 miles (that’s slightly below average for Americans), presumably while listening to Meat Loaf's chart-topping I Would Do Anything For Love. If so, you use about 476 gallons of gas, based on the ‘93 Taurus’s 21-mpg fuel economy rating. At 18.4 cents a gallon, about $88 of that represents your federal gas tax, which is basically a user fee that helps maintain the roads you’re driving on.
Now let’s fast forward to today, and you’ll notice that two things remain the same. First, the “Jurassic Park” franchise is again smashing records at the box office (because dinosaurs never go out of style). Second, the fuel tax is still 18.4 cents per gallon.
Here’s why that second point matters.
Let’s say you’re again driving the best-selling sedan in America, only today, that’s the 2015 Toyota Camry, which gets 28 miles per gallon. Let’s say you still drive 10,000 miles a year, too. With today’s more fuel efficient vehicle, you now need only 357 gallons of gas to cover the same distance you needed 476 gallons to cover back in 1993, a 25 percent reduction.
That’s good news for your wallet and great news for the environment.
It’s not such good news for our nation’s roads and bridges.
In our scenario, you still put 10,000 miles worth of wear and tear on the nation’s transportation arteries (in fact, that new Camry of yours weighs a tad more than your old Taurus). That’s 10,000 miles worth of contributions to cracks in nearby highways, stress on the beams holding up your local bridges, and yes, even those dastardly potholes you try so hard to circumnavigate on your commute to work.
However, because the percentage-based fee-per-gallon we all pay to use public roads hasn’t changed, the amount you contribute to help maintain them has now dropped to $66, about $22 less than you were paying for the same amount of road use in 1993.
Multiply that by hundreds of millions of Americans, extrapolate over several decades, consider that the user fee isn’t linked to inflation (your $88 back in 1993 bought more asphalt than it would today), and take into account that vehicles continue to get more fuel efficient (we haven’t even talked about the advent of hybrids and electrics), and you start to see why we find ourselves with a serious transportation funding crisis.
The Highway Trust Fund -- which is funded mostly by revenue from the federal gas tax and helps pay for more than half of the nation’s ground transportation projects -- is nearly out of money. Congress recently passed another short-term extension (the 34th such extension in recent years) to keep the fund solvent through the end of July, but lawmakers are now scrambling to find a long-term, sustainable solution for the fund.
Here’s the thing. By identifying the root of the problem, as we did above, we also identified the most sensible solution -- that is, raising the user fee.
What becomes clear in our scenario is that increasing the gas tax wouldn’t impose some unprecedentedly high fee on America’s drivers. Rather, it would merely help account for our increasingly efficient cars and begin to catch us back up to how much we were paying per mile of road use back in the 1990s, when the highway fund wasn’t running on empty.
"It is a fair solution, asking those who use the roads to help make them better and safer,” U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tom Donohue wrote recently. He also pointed out that an increase in the user fee would be “simple to collect and can be done immediately with no further costs.”
It’s also an urgently needed solution. Without action from Congress, critical construction projects will grind to a halt at the end of July.
A modest, phased-in increase in the user fee would not only prevent that from happening at the end of next month -- it would prevent that from happening any time in the near future. It would ensure that state and local governments receive the federal funding they need to maintain and rebuild our aging roads, highways and bridges, as well as provide capital for construction of new, state-of-the-art transit systems.
That’s vital for American businesses -- from manufacturers to plumbers to florists -- that depend on our roads to move their products and employees around town and around the country. It’s also critical for American workers who depend on those roads to get them to work every morning and back home safely in the evenings.
Our country and our automakers have taken important steps to help us cut our fuel usage and protect our environment. However, due to policies put in place more than two decades ago, those efforts have come at the cost of our nation’s increasingly important transportation systems. It doesn’t have to be that way.
With a small bump in our national user fee, we can continue to taking strides to protect the environment without sacrificing the quality, reliability and safety of our nation’s critical transportation systems. It’s time to step on the gas, Congress.
Listen to The U.S. Chamber's podcast on "Why You're Stuck in Traffic and What It's Costing You":