Don’t Pause the Gas Tax, Redirect It

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Congressman Jake Auchincloss — The president recently advocated for a gas tax holiday, which would save drivers only a few dollars over a few months. It also does not address the core problem. We don’t need a gas tax holiday. We need a gas tax reset: an overhaul of transportation funding. We must free our infrastructure from the grip of big oil and car-centric planning by handing highways over to the states and redirecting the federal gas tax to support bottom-up Strong Towns initiatives.

The Highway Trust Fund is running such a massive deficit that the gas tax couldn’t meet its needs even if it were five times higher—and what is doled out is allocated without reference to the metrics that matter most, like how well projects connect people to jobs, services, and one another. The driving metric is, simply, more vehicle miles (pun intended). To the detriment of state budgets, the federal transportation system incentivizes states to build road after road without regard to future costs of maintenance, operation, and environmental impact. This model of car-centric planning is exactly why, when energy prices spike, even the president has few good options to lower costs for Americans.

The solution is devolution. Congress should leave highway taxation and spending to the states. We should commensurately remove federal red tape and regulations on highways, beyond a minimum standard of safety, so that states and cities can use their dollars to address local mobility with organic solutions. The federal gas tax should remain but be used, instead, to subsidize locally sponsored projects that promote walkability, micromobility, and transit

The benefits of reforming federal highway funding and changing the way we spend the federal gas tax would be swift and tangible. First, giving states and cities more latitude will encourage local innovation, helping us find better transportation solutions and root out failed practices. Second, it will compel honest accounting of the cost of car-centric infrastructure. Right now, federal gas tax revenue incentivizes states to build and build without thinking about the compounded costs of maintaining an ever-expanding roadway, which are paid for by our children in the form of federal debt. Eliminating that revenue stream eliminates that unsustainable incentive. Third, a transparent account of the costs of maintenance will make it more likely that states implement strategies like congestion pricing and improved alternative mobility options, like cycling lanes, rail, and on-demand transit. The transition will be disruptive to politicians and bureaucrats, but the net effect will be a lower carbon footprint, better mobility, and more walkable downtowns.

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