For the past decade, Congress has made up the shortfall in two ways. First, it has used general revenues or accounting gimmicks to cover part of the gap. The Congressional Budget Office recently projected the cumulative shortfall over the coming decade will reach around $160 billion. Second, and much more ominously, Congress has seriously delayed the maintenance of the country’s roads, bridges and mass transit systems. The American Society of Civil Engineers has regularly given the public transport infrastructure a grade somewhere between “poor” and “failing,” with an estimated backlog of some $1 trillion of needed investment.
The recent sharp decline in world petroleum prices allows us to accomplish several vital national transportation and energy goals while leaving consumers far better off. World oil prices have declined by around $60 per barrel, and by roughly $1.40 per gallon in the U.S. since June 2014. By raising the gasoline tax 35 cents a gallon — bringing the total tax to 53.4 cents per gallon — consumers would still keep three-fourths of the recent windfall savings, while the U.S. government would recoup around $50 billion per year, or $500 billion over a decade, enough to close the financing gap on the trust fund while also making a down payment on the huge arrears on maintenance of the federal transportation system.
The step would also take us part way toward the twin goals of energy efficiency and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.