Hours before the GOP took control of the U.S. Senate last week, Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker used an appearance on CNBC to push a federal gas tax increase. Voters can be forgiven if they feel this was exactly what they expected when they gave Republicans complete control of Congress. Corker’s disastrous timing isn’t just bad politics — it is horrible policy.
Supporters of a gas tax hike point to several reasons to justify a higher federal tax. The tax hasn’t been raised in decades, so its impact has declined with inflation. As cars have become much more fuel efficient, the tax-per-mile-traveled collected has decreased. On current trends, the monies collected in the federal Highway Trust Fund, will continually fall short of the Trust Fund’s spending obligations.
All of these points are true. They are also beside the point.
The purpose of the Highway Trust Fund, and the reason for the federal gas tax, was to build and maintain the interstate highway system. Begun by President Eisenhower, before the first manned space flight, that task is largely complete. There is more than enough money in the Trust Fund, and for the foreseeable future, to fund the maintenance of the federal interstate system.
As with everything else in Washington, however, the Trust Fund program has evolved over the years. Over one quarter of Trust Fund spending is for non-highway needs. Mass Transit currently consumes about $10 billion a year from the Trust Fund. Almost by itself, that amount bridges any “shortfall” in the Fund. In many localities, Transit is an important part of the transportation system, but there certainly isn’t a federal interest in maintaining it. Using gas taxes to subsidize transit is horrible tax policy.
A worse misallocation of highway funds is the growing share of spending devoted to bike paths, nature trails and pedestrian walkways. The Federal Highway Administration even produced an informational video about the important role bicycles play meeting our transportation needs.
Corker’s hometown of Knoxville, TN, where he served as Mayor, even boasts that it has over 85 miles of paved bicycle and pedestrian paths in the city. No doubt these are very nice, but the federal government has no business subsidizing these goods. The City of Knoxville has been lauded by biking interest groups for accessing government transportation programs that cover 80% of the costs of building bike paths.
Again, very nice. But, why should taxpayers in other parts of the country pay for this. Isn’t it better to impose a sales tax on bikes and bike accessories to pay for bike paths? Constructing bike paths with monies from a tax on gasoline is literally giving cyclists a free ride at the expense of other taxpayers.
At the very least, these decisions should be made by state and local officials, accountable to voters where they live, rather than elected officials and bureaucrats in Washington. If anything, Republicans ought to cut the federal gas tax to a level sufficient to maintain the interstate highway system and devolve the rest of the program to the states.
Sen. Bob Corker is nominally a Republican Senator from Tennessee. At first glance, it seems unorthodox that a Republican will celebrate the party’s control of both chambers of Congress with an immediate call for a tax hike. It is especially unusual, considering the struggling economy is only now getting some needed breathing room with the recent drop in gasoline prices.
Unfortunately, Corker’s call for a tax hike is business as usual for many politicians. Corker may represent Tennessee, but his real constituents are the interest groups and bureaucrats that benefits from money flowing through Washington. There is no faster way for a Republican to be seen as a “serious person” by the mavens in DC than advocating a tax hike.
Corker’s support of TARP and expanding government through creation of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has certainly signaled to DC that he is a “serious person.” Once a Senator has crossed these lines, supporting a gas tax hike is a very small step.
Still, Corker might have thought to let Republicans appreciate their historic capture of the Senate before revealing that the new Congress is the same as the old Congress.