Joe Burns: Pay now, save later

Joe Burns

Wimpy, the beloved moocher of Popeye cartoon fame, never really worried about making good on tomorrow’s promise as long as he got what he needed today.

Some politicians are that way as well — pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye kind of guys whose answers to today’s problems are solutions that, even if valid, do little to meet an immediate need. The fuel oil crisis has had a lot of that, from the president on down.

More offshore drilling, more drilling undeveloped federal oil reserves, tightening the screws on oil speculators, developing more alternative energy sources, raising fuel economy standards – the list goes on. Some of the ideas may work, others won’t, but all will take time.

Congressman Jim Oberstar shares a lot of those ideas. The Minnesota Democrat has called for oil companies to increase their gasoline storage capacities. He’s called for blocking oil companies from mergers that will make it easier to manipulate gas prices. He’s called for the development of renewable energy. He’s called for one more thing as well: a 10 cents a gallon increase in the gas tax. And he doesn’t want to wait until those other ideas bear fruit. Oberstar says we need it now.

Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is asking for an increase because the Highway Trust Fund, which pays for road and bridge repair and maintenance and depends on the federal gas tax to fill its coffers, is losing money. In three years the fund went from a $10 billion surplus to a projected $3 billion deficit. According to Oberstar, even if the fund got back to its $10 billion level it would still fall about $490 billion short of what would be needed over the next six years to address all the infrastructure issues.

Oberstar has been calling for a gas tax increase ever since 2007 when he stood beside a Minneapolis bridge that collapsed during rush hour, killing 13 people. He was then asking for a temporary five cents a gallon increase over three years to make sure that all bridges across the country were made safe. At that time gas cost $2.80 cents a gallon (remember when that seemed like a lot). Grover G. Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, responded to Oberstar’s nickel a gallon request, asking him to reconsider his proposal. Norquist claimed that the five cents a gallon increase would cost motorists $25 billion over three years.

Twenty five billion dollars is a lot of reasons to drive less, and if we were to project those same figures on to Oberstar’s open-ended 10 cents a mile increase, drivers would be paying $16.6 billion more a year for gas.

Back in 2005, at a meeting of regional and national transportation officials, policymakers and professionals, a number of ideas were discussed as to how to best finance the maintenance of the country’s infrastructure. Oberstar called the gas tax a fair method of financing highway development.

"All the users pay,” he said. “The amount of tax each user pays is generally equivalent to miles driven and use made of the system.”

If by users Oberstar meant those who drive the roads, he’s wrong. Users of any product or service that relies in some way on gas have the tax passed on to them either partially or completely. He is also wrong when he calls a flat tax a fair tax, since those with lower incomes pay a greater portion of their earnings in taxes.

That said, federal gas taxes haven’t risen in 15 years. That’s not what’s fueling inflation. But a dime a gallon hike won’t be just a symbolic slap in the face to families and businesses struggling to survive. It will only make matters worse.

The Highway Trust Fund is hurting because people just aren’t driving as much as they used to, and even when they do, more and more are car-pooling or driving hybrids. And why are they doing this? Because the price of gasoline has driven up cost of driving and just about everything else. Adding to that cost will just add to the loss.

Yes Congressman Oberstar, I’d gladly consider paying a higher gas tax tomorrow for some real relief today, but I’m not fool enough to do it the other way.

You can call Joe Burns of the Falmouth (Mass.) Bulletin at 508-375-4936 or e-mail him at