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To Fix the Highway Trust Fund, Why Not Raise the Gas Tax?

A section of highway in Brooklyn, riddled with potholes
A section of highway in Brooklyn, riddled with potholesPhotograph by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Congress and the White House are looking under every seat cushion for money to replenish the national Highway Trust Fund without raising taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel. One concept backed by Senators Harry Reid and Rand Paul is to use the proceeds from a windfall of taxes on repatriated corporate profits. An even less likely idea from House Speaker John Boehner is to cut back on mail delivery and put the savings into the trust fund.

Both ideas have drawbacks, and they fight the founding principle of the Highway Trust Fund, which is that construction and maintenance of highways and bridges should be paid for by the people who use them. The straightforward way to replenish the fund is to raise taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel, which haven’t gone up since 1993. They’re 18.4 cents a gallon for gasoline and 24.4 cents a gallon for diesel. In 1993 the federal tax accounted for 17 percent of the retail price of a gallon of gasoline. Now it’s just 5 percent.