Commission to make up gas tax shortfall

January 2, 2009 7:13:32 PM PST
Americans have been driving less since gas prices hit record highs last summer and, the trend is holding. That may be good for air quality, but it's not so good for the quality of our roads since part of what we pay at the pump goes to road projects. So, the move is on for increasing the federal gas tax.

The 15-member National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission was created by Congress to figure out how to make up for a funding shortfall. Later this month, they will tell Congress the way to do it is increase the gas tax.

Even before summer's soaring gas prices, Californians were already buying less and less gasoline. The amount went down by more than six percent less, during the third quarter of 2008, as compared to 2009. It is the tenth quarterly decline in a row. Now even with lower prices, the recession is playing a role in preventing a return to old gas guzzling habits. But that means the federal gas tax -- needed to fund transportation projects, like highway maintenance, is coming up short -- a projected $134 billion short by 2017.

"The problem is we were never properly funded, even before this all began," said Dan Kammen.

The gas tax has not gone up since 1979 and a Federal panel assigned to take a look at federal highway funding, says now's the time to increase it. It's recommending raising it by 10 cents from the current 18.4 to 28.4 cents per gallon. For diesel it would go from 24.4 to as high as 29.4 cents per gallon. UC Berkeley energy expert Dan Kammen feels there's no way around it.

"The federal commission has requested that both the diesel and gas tax go up by about 50 percent which is a big jump, but they haven't jumped in a long time. So this is a needed step unfortunately," said Professor Dan Kammen.

California truckers see this as one more challenge they might not survive. The economy has already put the squeeze on Oakland-based AB Trucking business is down 30 percent and the end of the year, new state air standards will require older trucks be replaced with expensive new ones.

"We already pay our fair share in the trucking industry," said Bill Aboudi, from AB Trucking.

The commission is not attaching a timeline to its suggested increases. Another federal group studying the same problem has also suggested an increase of as much as 40 cents per gallon of gas, phased in over five years.