As of late last week, the average price of a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline in the Baltimore area hovered around $2.71, about six cents below the national average and a few pennies less than a week ago. One year ago, the average was $3.52. And where are gasoline prices headed in September? Industry analysts say barring major damage to refineries during hurricane season, they're expected to drop further still — perhaps even challenging the $2 mark.
Meanwhile, the cost of burning that gasoline is going up dramatically, in large part because of traffic congestion and failing roads and bridges. The most recent estimate is that gridlock is costing the United States more than $124 billion a year, according to INRIX, a company that analyzes traffic data in 40 countries. It could go up to $186 billion by 2030.
In a classic case of "you can pay me now or you can pay me more later," the nation's neglect of its transportation infrastructure is costing drivers and employers alike. Falling gasoline prices may make it cheaper to operate an engine, but that doesn't do anyone much good if the vehicles to which those engines are attached are stuck idling in traffic twice as long as they used to be — or stuck in the shop because of damage from hitting a pot hole.
Yet all that seems completely lost on Congress, which once again appears just days from approving a stopgap transportation funding bill to avoid a federal Highway Trust Fund bankruptcy at the end of the month. Last week, the House approved an $8 billion extension, but it's not yet clear the Senate will go along with it. And frankly, why should they? Congress has been detoured down the stopgap route more than 30 times over the last six years, demonstrating a shameful inability to plan for America's transportation future beyond a few months at a time.
That's no way to do business. The biggest sticking point of late is the desire by both Democrats and Republicans to finance transportation spending through corporate tax reforms. There's nothing wrong with using a portion of corporate tax revenues on transportation — Maryland does it on the state level, too — but closing corporate tax loopholes is a tricky business filled with special-interest politics. President Barack Obama proposed taxing overseas corporate profits, and the idea (although still insufficient given the enormity of the nation's unmet transportation needs) has bipartisan support, yet efforts have been bogged by the myriad other potential reforms and tax breaks pushed by various members of Congress.
Meanwhile, a far simpler solution is available. The federal gas tax, once routinely increased periodically on a bipartisan basis to keep up with inflation and system expansion, has been stuck at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993 when the cost of gasoline averaged about $1.16 per gallon. Back then, you paid 29 cents to mail a letter, $2.27 for a gallon of milk, and $1.57 for a loaf of bread. All have gone up at least 40 percent in price, yet the federal government's so-called "user fee" on motorists has stayed flat as an airport tarmac (and actually declined if you factor in the effect of more fuel-efficient vehicles in depressing tax revenue).
Do Americans really believe they can have something for nothing? We don't think so. And the minute members of Congress stop engaging in such magical thinking, voters might begin to accept this reality, too. Maryland's recent choice to raise the gas tax on the state level has been virtually unnoticeable at the pump where prices are still below the national average, but it allowed Gov. Larry Hogan to recently unveil nearly $2 billion worth of local road and bridge projects — albeit after diverting money from Baltimore's Red Line plans, but that's another editorial for another day.
One possibility would be to simply index the gas tax to inflation, and there's a bill with bipartisan sponsorship — The Bridge to Sustainable Infrastructure Act — to do just that. The measure would allow Congress to intervene if members came up with an alternative method to fund transportation. Yet the common-sense proposal doesn't appear to be going anywhere with Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill alike scared to touch the gas tax.
In the meantime, Washington will continue to run a transportation deficit, foisting the rising cost of fixing its neglected infrastructure on the next generation while simultaneously putting the nation's economy and global competitiveness at risk — all to save a few pennies per gallon at a time when gasoline is relatively cheap. It's a classic case of penny-wise, trillion-dollar-foolish behavior.