By John Schneidawind, vice president of public affairs, ARTBA
If the experience of newly elected Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D) is any indication, campaigning on raising the gas tax isn’t political suicide. It’s a path to victory.
Speaking Feb. 7 before a hearing of the House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure (T&I) under its new chairman, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), Walz detailed how he won last November with a proactive stance on raising the state gas tax. He appeared at the hearing on behalf of the National Governors Association and acknowledged that not all its members agree with his stance.
Walz’s poll numbers went up during the campaign even as his opponent ran negative ads about his gas tax increase position. “We ran a campaign talking about investing,” said Walz, a former member of the T&I committee. “In Minnesota, we’ll propose a comprehensive transportation package addressing all modes of transportation to improve the lives of Minnesotans. The gas tax is a reliable funding stream that gets the job done.”
Judging from the questions posed to the panelists, T&I Committee members were split along party lines about a gas tax increase—Democrats leaning for, Republicans leaning against. One exception is Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who noted that the ability of the gas tax to produce needed revenue has eroded since 1993, when it was last increased, from 18.5 cents to 8 cents due to inflation. Young unsuccessfully supported a gas tax increase as part of transportation legislation during the second Bush administration.
“To me there’s not a danger in increasing the user fee for the first time in 26 years,” DeFazio said, “but we have to make the case in a way that’s irrefutable.”
Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), the committees ranking member, wants to transition to a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) program.
Panelists and committee members agreed that raising the tax by itself won’t solve America’s infrastructure crisis or be enough to replenish the depleted Highway Trust Fund. What’s needed, they said, is a combination of solutions that includes a gas tax increase, user or mileage fees, and a continuing emphasis on Public-Private Partnerships, or P3s.
Also testifying before the panel were former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Los Angeles Democrat Mayor Eric Garcetti, and other modal stakeholder representatives.
The hearing marks the beginning of the debate on an infrastructure package that both Democrats and Republicans agree is needed. ARTBA will continue working to ensure any such package includes a permanent revenue solution for the Highway Trust Fund.