WASHINGTON – There's no need to raise the federal gasoline tax, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee says, dimming the hopes of some in his party who want the increase to help pay for nationwide bridge repair.
Montana Sen. Max Baucus, a longtime foe of such increases, said in an interview that continuing to rely on gas tax revenue is not feasible, since more people are using hybrid cars and the cost of highway construction materials is going up. There are better alternatives, he said, but he would not provide details.
"I don't think an increase in the gasoline tax is needed," Baucus said. "I don't favor it."
After the deadly bridge collapse in Minnesota earlier this month, Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., proposed a 5-cent increase in the 18.3 cents-a-gallon federal gasoline tax to establish a trust fund for repairing or replacing structurally deficient highway bridges. Oberstar is the Democratic chairman of the House Transportation Committee.
Oberstar said the trust fund would be modeled on the federal Highway Trust Fund, which pays for building and repairing roads and bridges through the gas tax.
"Where I am going is there are other ways to replenish the trust fund that are frankly, oh, more palatable ... that the American people would not react adversely to," Baucus said Wednesday.
Baucus is also chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee's transportation subcommittee, which oversees passage of the multibillion-dollar highway bill every few years.
President Bush has vigorously opposed an increase in the tax, accusing lawmakers of steering federal money to local projects before distributing the money nationally.
Republican reactions to Oberstar's idea are mixed. The House Transportation Committee's top Republican, Rep. John Mica of Florida, opposed raising the tax, calling the proposal a "knee-jerk reaction." But Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, the panel's former chairman, has supported financing the bridge work with a tax increase.
More than 70,000 of the nation's bridges are rated structurally deficient, including the Minnesota bridge that collapsed over the Mississippi River earlier this month. The American Society of Civil Engineers says repairing them all would require spending at least $9.4 billion a year for 20 years. Oberstar says his tax-increase proposal would raise about $25 billion over three years.