Nation's Highways Seek Funding Source

A federal commission has recommended a 10 cent per gallon increase in the gas tax, which hasn't been raised since 1993, as well as a tax based on how far motorists drive, to fund the nation's highways. But the tax based on mileage was publicly shot down by the White House, and raising the gas tax has little support amid a recession.

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The nation's highways and bridges are in trouble, money trouble. The stimulus bill sent about $48 billion their way for repairs, but that's a one-time boost. Here's the thing: Most federal highway funds come from the gas tax. It hasn't gone up since 1993.

Now comes a bipartisan commission with two ideas: raise the gas tax and move toward something new - tax based on how far you drive.

NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: Here's a mouthful, The National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission. It was created by congress to figure out what lawmakers couldn't, how to pay for the nation's roads and bridges. The federal gasoline tax has been stuck at 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993. Last year, congress has to pony up $8 billion from general revenues to fill the gap between what the gas tax raised and what was needed.

So the bipartisan financing commission has proposed raising the tax by a dime a gallon, a little bit more for diesel fuel. Robert Atkinson is the panel's chairman.

Mr. ROBERT ATKINSON: (Chairman, National Surface Transportation. Infrastructure Financing Commission): The 13 cents for diesel and 10 cents for gasoline essentially brings you back to where the country was in 1993 in inflation-adjusted dollars.

NAYLOR: But Atkinson and the panel say a hike in the gas tax is just a short-term solution.

Mr. ATKINSON: It's certainly possible that we will see fairly radical innovations in the automobile and light truck and even heavy truck fleet, and those innovations may lead to a very rapid decline in gasoline consumption, and if that's the case, how are we going to go about funding the system?

NAYLOR: The long-term solution, the commission says, is a mileage-based tax or VMT for vehicle miles traveled. Cars would be equipped with a box, kind of like the EZ-pass system used on some toll highways now. It would transmit how far a driver traveled at what time of day.

Critics have raised privacy concerns. But backers say the government would not know where a person traveled. Commission member Geoffrey Yarema says the tech problems can be surmounted.

Mr. GEOFFREY YAREMA (National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission): My father was an engineer at Cape Canaveral in the 1960s through the Apollo and Saturn program, and they used pocket protectors and slide rules to get to the moon. I really don't think that the engineers that we have in the world today will have much trouble in helping us transition, technically, to a more direct, user-pay system.

NAYLOR: The mileage-based system is popular with environmentalists, too, because it would encourage more off-peak driving and less idling and congestion. Michael Replogle is transportation director for the Environmental Defense Fund.

Mr. MICHAEL REPLOGLE (Transportation Director, Environmental Defense Fund): By shifting just seven percent of the peak-hour traffic into the hours before and after the peak, we get reductions in congestion of 15 or 20 percent, which benefit everyone and reduce air pollution, reduce greenhouse gas pollution and actually go to fund better public transportation.

NAYLOR: There is one more big problem. The VMT doesn't have much in the way of political support. When Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood suggested it was one of the ideas on the table for road funding, he was quickly rebuked by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

Gibbs said such a levy is not and will not be the policy of the Obama administration, nor does raising the gas tax have much appeal in the middle of a recession. But backers on the financing commission are optimistic. They say congress doesn't need to solve this immediately, and perhaps by the time they get to it, the recession will be over.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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