Good luck with that, Larry Summers.
Writing in Wonkblog, former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers tells us what we already know about America’s gas tax: It needs to be higher. About 40 cents a gallon higher, by his calculations. The math that gets to that number starts with a recent TRIP study estimating that bad roads cost drivers $109 billion a year, halves that to $54 billion for the sake of being “very conservative,” then factors in the amount of fuel Americans already consume.
The beauty of the plan, writes Summers, is that the tax would pay for itself. Basically, what cash-strapped middle-class drivers would hand over in fuel fees would be balanced out by what they save on car-maintenance costs. Here’s Summers:
So if we were able to raise the gas tax by 40 cents and repair our highways and roads, we would create no new net burden on consumers: The benefit in reduced vehicle operating costs would at the very least offset their higher gas bills. In fact, since our cost estimate is conservative, the net effect on consumers would most likely be positive. And as is fair, those who drive the most would both pay the most and benefit the most from reduced repair costs.
Raising the gas tax 40 cents would go a long way toward settling America’s infrastructure crisis—which, as Summers suggests, is more properly framed as a maintenance crisis. If you factor in the safety value of repairing highways, the tax bump becomes even more of a social bargain. TRIP reports that poor road conditions played a factor in about a third of the 32,719 traffic fatalities that occurred in 2013.
Another quarter, dime, and nickel would also go a long way toward putting federal transportation funding on solid footing for the first time in years. As things stand, funding is set to reach critical levels in late November (though the real deadline is late October, when the latest short-term patch bill expires). Short of replacing the gas tax with a more sophisticated alternative, such as a per-mile driving fee, raising it is the only rational option.
But rationality doesn’t make for political reality. The existing gas tax of 18.4 cents a gallon hasn't been raised since 1993. The last time it went up strictly for transportation purposes was 1982. This stagnation persists even though America pays among the lowest fuel taxes in the world—and wouldn’t budge in those rankings if 40 more cents a gallon were added. So Summers’s idea is about as politically feasible as a Sanders-Cruz 2016 presidential ticket.
Now that would be worth paying 40 cents to see.