In theory, advocates of an infusion of spending to fix the nation's crumbling roads and bridges have found the perfect political moment.
Fuel prices are plunging to their lowest level in years. The Highway Trust Fund is broke, and Congress faces a spring deadline to replenish it. The obvious answer—the only answer, according to many in Washington—is to raise the 18.4 cent-per-gallon gas tax, which hasn't gone up in more than 20 years. Since prices at the pump have dropped more than a dollar per gallon in some areas, drivers would barely notice the extra nickel they'd be forced initially to pay as a result of the tax hike. That wasn't true until recently: For years, the pocketbook punch of the Great Recession combined with gas prices that peaked above $4 made an increase both politically and economically untenable.
Yet even with prices at a four-year low, the odds of Congress touching the gas tax are as long as ever. "I think it’s too toxic and continues to be too toxic," said Steve LaTourette, the former Republican congressman best known for his close friendship with his fellow Ohioan, Speaker John Boehner. "I see no political will to get this done."
Taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel have financed the Highway Trust Fund since its inception under President Eisenhower in 1956. Congress periodically raised the levies for decades with bipartisan support, but it has not done so since 1993, when an increase was included as part of President Clinton's economic plan, which passed both the House and Senate by just a single vote. Neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama have supported increases in the gas tax. In 2008, the trust fund became insolvent and has since been plugged by transfers from the Treasury.