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Not raising gas tax has a price

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Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.)

Every six years or so, the federal government puts together a massive bill to fund everything from highways, bridges and tunnels to mass transit.

But there's a problem. The federal gas tax, which is pegged at 18.4 cents per gallon (for regular), doesn't go up as costs do. It hasn't changed since 1993. So all things being equal, Washington will gradually lose ground in its ability to build and maintain infrastructure.

That's a fact that Sen. Mark Kirk wasn't emphasizing when he was in town Monday to push public-private partnerships as a way to come up with $100 billion for new roads, airports and railroads.

Kirk made it clear he's against any gas tax increase, which he said would disproportionately hit those on the lower end of the economic spectrum and that "could take the economy into another recession, which I think we are dangerously close to." He pointed out that the recession has caused people to drive fewer miles, which means less fuel-tax revenue for the government. Also cutting fuel-tax revenue, he said, is the growing use of electric and hybrid vehicles.

To get $100 billion, Kirk would do three things.

First, he would increase the eligibility for the federal TIFIA program, which is designed to attract private investment by providing credit assistance for surface transportation projects, including highway, transit and rail. "That unlocks about $42 billion in funding for a program that is already oversubscribed," Kirk said.

Second, he would make eligibility changes in the Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing (RRIF) Program, which provides direct federal loans and loan guarantees to finance development of railroad infrastructure. Now, the program "is so encumbered [and] it takes so long that the rail center has only used $1 billion of [the $35 billion allocated]," Kirk said.

Third, he would "increase or lift the caps I creating new revenue streams for highways and other projects in airports that unlock roughly another $40 billion in federal funding."

You can read Kirk's official press release here:

Kirk points to the 19th century transcontinental railroad as an example of a successful public-private partnership, which isn't the happiest analogy since many of the workers perished in harsh conditions.

And the Chicago area's experience with the Skyway and city parking meters shows that getting private investors involved - while not a tax increase - doesn't mean it's not going to cost you money. For example, under Kirk's proposal, motorists could find themselves paying tolls on some Interstate highways to repay private investors for new roads or major reconstruction.

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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Frisbie published on June 20, 2011 4:40 PM.

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