Federal gas tax increase is long overdue

The image of Congress kicking the can down the road again comes to mind, except this time lawmakers are running out of good road.

Earlier this week the U.S. House of Representatives passed a two-month extension of the federal Highway Trust Fund. With the trust fund set to expire May 31, Congress again is electing to slap a temporary patch on the problem rather than address a longer-term fix. The two-month extension allows the summer road construction season to proceed, preventing the halt nationwide of about 6,000 road projects and the loss of 660,000 construction jobs. This follows a 10-month extension the last time Congress was faced with the trust fund running on empty.

The need for maintenance and new construction is clear to anyone who drives our roads, crosses a bridge or rides a train or ferry. Transportation officials have documented that half of the nation’s major highways are rated as poor or mediocre and a quarter of our bridges are structurally deficient. It took only one strike of a crossbeam by a truck’s over-height load to bring down the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River two years ago, a bridge that the state had rated as “functionally obsolete.” A lack of funding from Congress has meant delay in implementation of Positive Train Control on major rail lines, which almost certainly would have prevented the recent Amtrak accident in Philadelphia that claimed eight lives.

Washington Democratic Reps. Rick Larsen and Suzan DelBene voted for the temporary patch but also have called for Congress to pass the Grow America Act, a six-year $478 billion transportation package that represents a 45 percent increase over current funding levels for highways, bridges, public transportation, railway programs, highway safety and community grants. One example, Larsen said: It would mean work to improve I-5’s bridges through Everett could start.

But the reluctance to approve the six-year spending plan is tied to finding the funding for it, which means Congress has to pass an increase to the gas tax. A funding package for the $478 billion would require an estimated 8- to 10-cent-per-gallon increase. Along with many Republicans, more than a few Democrats have shown reluctance to adopt an increase, and President Obama has shown little leadership on the issue.

The last time the federal gas tax was increased was in 1993. Since then, highway funding has developed a slow leak that has worsened every year as Americans drove fewer miles and as fuel efficiency improved in their cars and trucks. The average family car got 28 miles to the gallon in 1993; by 2013 that had improved to 36 miles to the gallon.

We have seen Republicans in the state Legislature step up and address the crucial need for increased transportation spending by proposing a gradual 12-cent-a-gallon increase in the state’s fuel tax. The Legislature currently is engaged in its own game of kicking the can down the road from one special session to the next, but it at least has a plan for moving forward.

This latest patch should be Congress’ last. Pass the six-year transportation plan and the gas tax increase that will fund it.

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