WASHINGTON – Federal gasoline taxes should be increased up to 40 cents per gallon over five years, a divided special commission urged Tuesday in calling for drastic changes to fix aging bridges and roads and reduce traffic deaths.
The two-year study by the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission is the first to propose broad changes after the devastating bridge collapse in Minneapolis last August shone a spotlight on the unsteady conditions of the nation's infrastructure. Calling for immediate action, the congressionally created panel warns that "applying patches" is no longer acceptable, saying the nation risks tens of thousands of highway casualties each year and millions of dollars lost in economic growth.
"The crisis is now," the report states.
The 68-page report of findings and recommendations, which were supported by nine members of the commission, is expected to re-ignite congressional and political debate over raising gasoline taxes. The gas tax has not been increased since 1993, and recent efforts by Congress to increase it have faltered over the objections of the Bush administration.
In a 10-page dissent, the commission's chairwoman, Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, and two other members agreed with several aspects of the report but sharply criticized the proposal for higher gasoline taxes.
She and the two commissioners are calling instead for sole reliance on tolls and private investment, which Peters said would avoid sending millions of dollars of new tax revenue to Washington that end up as congressional pork.
"Relying on increases in the federal fuel tax and inviting political earmarking is a recipe for failure that we, as a nation, can no longer afford," she and the two commissioners wrote.
Besides Peters, those opposing a tax increase are Maria Cino, Peters' former deputy who is organizing the 2008 Republican National Convention, and Rick Geddes, a Cornell University professor who has served as a senior staff economist in the Bush administration on the President's Council of Economic Advisers.
None of the three showed up at a news conference Tuesday to unveil the report. A Transportation department spokesman for Peters, Brian Turmail, said the three commissioners opted not to appear to avoid a public display of the internal division.
Under the proposal to raise gas taxes, the current tax of 18.4 cents per gallon would be increased by 5 cents to 8 cents annually for five years and then indexed to inflation afterward to help fix the infrastructure, expand public transit and highways as well as broaden railway and rural access. The increase is designed to take effect in 2009, after President Bush leaves office.
Other sources of revenue could come from tolls, peak-hour "congestion pricing" on highways, freight fees and ticket taxes for passenger rail improvements, the report said.
"A failure to act will be catastrophic to this nation," said Jack Schenendorf, the commission's vice chairman. He contended the tax increase would amount to "less than a cost of a candy bar and a fifth of the cost of a cafe latte" for the average U.S. motorist.
"We saw what happened with Katrina," he said, referring to the 2005 hurricane which overwhelmed aging levees. "We don't want to see the transportation system to see the same fate of the New Orleans levees."
Commissioner Paul Weyrich, a Republican appointee to the commission and chairman of the Free Congress Foundation, said he is philosophically opposed to higher taxes but decided to support it in this case in light of the growing transportation problems. He noted that of the nine commissioners supporting a gas tax increase, five are Republicans and four are Democrats.
Among the recommendations, which are expected to cost $225 billion each year for the next 50 years:
—Work to cut traffic fatalities in half over the next 17 years by urging states to embrace new strategies to improve safety.
—Ease traffic congestion by expanding state and local public transit systems and highway capacity.
—Protect the environment by smoothing traffic flow, encouraging alternative commute options such as carpooling and public transit and promoting energy-efficient construction and lighting in transit systems to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
—Seek to develop new energy sources with new research programs costing $200 million annually over the next decade.
The report also calls for the country to rebuild and expand its rail network to meet a growing demand for alternatives to congested highways and to promote partnerships between the public and private sectors at U.S. ports.
The commission was formed by Congress in 2005 to study the future needs of the nation's surface transportation system, which includes roads, mass-transit systems, ports and rail lines — as well as to recommend funding options.
The report comes as state governments and several business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, are calling on the federal government to raise gas taxes to pay for substantial transportation improvements. The Minneapolis bridge collapse, which killed 13 people and injured about 100, also drew new calls for additional spending.