Americans Say They Back Higher Gas Tax to Fix Crumbling Roads

Pothole in road

Congress hasn’t raised the federal gas tax since 1993 when Bill Clinton was president, but a narrow majority of Americans would support an increase to help fix crumbling roads and bridges in their own states.

55% of Americans in a Bloomberg National Poll say they would back an increase. The concept has bipartisan support, with majorities of Republicans (51%) and Democrats (67%) backing the idea.

Americans are tired of the condition of their roads and interstate highways and the 56,000 structurally deficient bridges nationwide, said Ray LaHood, a Republican and former U.S. transportation secretary under President Barack Obama who supports raising the gas tax.

“People are fed up,” LaHood said. “They’re ready for politicians to take action.”

President Donald Trump has promised a plan to invest $1 trillion over 10 years for upgrading deteriorating roads, bridges, airports and other assets. The White House said that while no decision has been made about raising the federal gas tax to help pay for the improvements, all options are on the table.

Trump told Bloomberg in May that increasing the gas tax is “something that I would certainly consider.’’ He described the idea as supported by truckers “if we earmarked money toward the highways,’’ though White House spokesman Sean Spicer later said the president wasn’t endorsing the idea.

Still, New York developer Richard LeFrak, whom Trump tapped to help lead an infrastructure advisory council, has said that even adjusting the gas tax for inflation “would go a long way towards fixing the roads’’ and that voters wouldn’t punish politicians for raising the levy.

“I haven’t seen every governor who raises a gas tax hung in, you know, the town square for it,’’ LeFrak said in a March interview on Bloomberg Television.

Twenty-six states have raised or updated their gas taxes since 2013, including eight so far this year, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a non-profit research organization in Washington.

Poll participant Rae Sobocinski, 51, a Republican stay-at-home mother from Greenville, South Carolina, said she’d support a federal increase, in part because she views it as a tax that hits everyone fairly evenly. The Republican-led state recently raised its fuel taxes by 12 cents a gallon over six years.

“Our city is growing like gangbusters, and yet we have some really poor roads with potholes everywhere,’’ said Sobocinski, who estimates she spends about $200 a month on gas for two vehicles. “Maybe a gas tax would be a way to fix that.’’

Rural and Urban

Raising the gas tax could hit rural voters, who overwhelmingly chose Trump in the 2016 presidential election, as well as middle and working-class people he has promised to favor in his tax policy.

The tax is regressive, meaning it puts a bigger proportional burden on lower-income families’ household budgets than it does on higher earners’, and rural residents tend to drive farther distances and thus pay more in gas taxes than those living in urban areas, said Carl Davis, research director for the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

The Bloomberg poll found that those who voted for Trump are more skeptical of raising the federal gas tax, with just 45% saying they’d support it.

The survey also shows there are geographical differences, with those who live in cities being more supportive of a higher gas levy (59%) than those in rural areas (48%). Those in the Northeast are more likely to back the idea (65%), while those in the South are the least likely (50%).

“We’ve gone almost 24 years without an increase, and I don’t think this year or even next year we’re likely to break that streak,’’ Davis said. “But if suddenly this becomes a priority for people in leadership, that could change.’’

The federal per-gallon taxes of 18.4 cents on gas and 24.4 cents on diesel were last raised in 1993. Since then, inflation has robbed the fuel taxes of almost 40% of their purchasing power. Meanwhile, the average fuel economy of a passenger vehicle increased by 12% between 2005 and 2014, leading to reductions in fuel use and tax revenue, according to a U.S. Department of Transportation study.

Federal gas tax revenue flows to states through the Highway Trust Fund, which Congress has kept solvent with transfers from other sources. The Congressional Budget Office projected that the fund will become insolvent by 2021 without additional funding. Transportation and business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have called for increasing the gas tax for years as a way to help sustain and increase it.

House Speaker Paul Ryan and other congressional Republicans, many of whom signed a pledge not to raise taxes, have scuttled previous attempts to raise the federal gas levy, saying they don’t want to ask drivers to pay more and that the gas tax provides diminishing returns as cars get more fuel-efficient or are replaced by electric vehicles.

Still, the poll shows there can be public support from both parties for raising the tax if it’s tied to fixing roads and bridges, said Mary Peters, a consultant and former U.S. Transportation Secretary under President George W. Bush.

Peters said she probably would have concluded earlier this year that raising the gas tax was too big a lift politically. But especially after the collapse of efforts to repeal Obamacare this week, Trump and Congress will need a higher gas levy or other public funding to get support from Democrats to pass an infrastructure bill, she said.

“I’m more optimistic that something like that could happen than I would have been even six, nine months ago,’’ she said.

The telephone poll of 1,001 American adults has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1% age points, higher among subgroups. It was conducted July 8-12 by Iowa-based Selzer & Co.