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Highways Might Improve if Senate Proposal Can Pass on the Right

Photographer: Kari Goodnough/Bloomberg

The collapsed Interstate 35W bridge sits in the Misissippi River on Aug. 3, 2007, in Minneapolis. Close

The collapsed Interstate 35W bridge sits in the Misissippi River on Aug. 3, 2007, in Minneapolis.

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Photographer: Kari Goodnough/Bloomberg

The collapsed Interstate 35W bridge sits in the Misissippi River on Aug. 3, 2007, in Minneapolis.

Americans like low taxes and cheap gas. So the idea of raising the federal gasoline tax should be, and generally has been, a double no-brainer. The levy per gallon hasn't budged in 20 years.

Two U.S. Senators upended this logic yesterday by calling for a 12-cent per gallon rise in the federal gasoline tax in the next two years. If the low-tax, cheap-gas orthodoxy continues to prevail, they argue, then the country will have to either borrow more money than it already does or stop building roads. Neither option sounds desirable to anyone who thinks the U.S.’s credit cards are already overdrawn. Or anyone who relies on highways for personal transportation or for the delivery of goods to nearby stores.

The last time the federal levy on motor fuel changed was 1994. It’s stayed at 18.4 cents a gallon for gasoline and 24.4 cents for diesel since then. The tax is not pegged to inflation, which means its value has eroded over time. That 18.4 cents in 1994 pennies would have been worth about 29.4 cents today if the tax rose with inflation.

The resulting decline in tax revenue is expected to push the U.S. Federal Highway Trust Fund, where gas taxes wind up, into a shortfall this summer. The fund finances about half of the nation’s road construction, and dates to the mid-1950s, like the U.S. interstate highway system itself.

Source: FHWA

Source: FHWA

The situation has pushed Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker to action. “I finally got to a point that I realized that this cannot go on,” Corker told reporters yesterday, according to Politico. “It’s time for us to finally deal with this issue.”

Corker put forward the idea with Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy.

As much as their colleagues in Senate might object to the idea of raising the federal gas tax — never mind the ideologically paralyzed House of Representatives — they might still consider Corker and Murphy’s useful distillation of the problem: No more money, no new roads.

Truly engaged legislators might take a step back even further and look at how transportation policies are changing around the world, to see how the U.S. debate compares. After all, the U.S.’s gas tax, fuel economy standards and car pollution rules are remnants of public debates begun in the ’50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.

There are more modern things to fight about. Look at Shenzhen, where a new Chinese carbon policy may require car owners to meet their own CO2 quotas. Historically, countries or regions that price carbon emissions have done so mostly at the level of large industrial facilities, which are far fewer but bigger polluters than cars.

There’s no sense even raising that kind of idea in Washington. It’s a very 2014, very non-U.S. idea and Corker and Murphy are going to have a hard enough time turning everyone's minds to 1994.

More by Eric Roston (@eroston on Twitter)

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