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Builders rally against gas tax for carbon research

By Sean Ryan

A proposal to use a federal gasoline tax increase to pay for carbon-emissions research is frustrating builder associations that want the money for highway construction.

“Ultimately, we have very limited opportunities to make the investment that everybody says we need in our transportation system,” said Brian Turmail, spokesman for the Associated General Contractors of America. “We should not be wasting those opportunities, ever.”

A letter on behalf of 27 construction industry associations and unions is urging members of the U.S. Senate to abandon the idea of levying a per-gallon carbon tax on gasoline. The letter is in response to reports that draft versions of the Senate’s carbon reductions bill include a gasoline tax increase to pay for research into fuel-efficient vehicles and carbon emissions.

Charles Komanoff, co-director of the Carbon Tax Center in New York City, said he does not support using the gasoline tax to pay for carbon research, but he does support the greater message. The construction industry, he said, needs to accept that highway spending must be reined in.

“We’ve got to stop building new roads and building more lanes,” Komanoff said, “and we have to kind of develop a fix-it-first approach.”

The U.S. House of Representatives last year passed a carbon bill that does not include a federal gasoline tax increase. That bill would set limits for U.S. carbon emissions and establish taxes for industries that produce or burn fossil fuels.

Those taxes, Komanoff said, eventually would be passed on to consumers, meaning, at least theoretically, that people will drive fewer miles. And if people drive less, there is less need to direct money toward highway construction, he said.

The money should instead focus on highway and road maintenance, Komanoff said.

“They’re slowly kind of ramping up, they’re calling those DOTs away from a build-more mentality to a fix-it-first mentality,” he said. “But that has to keep going.”

Construction lobbyists this year will push for a new transportation spending bill that would raise more money for projects. The federal gasoline tax has not increased since 1993, when it was set at 18.3 cents per gallon.

The AGC is a longtime supporter of doubling that tax to send more money into the Federal Highway Trust Fund, Turmail said, but the inclusion of the Senate’s tax increase for carbon research will make that more difficult.

“We’re not naive about how politically difficult it is to get even a modest fee increase,” he said.

A gasoline tax is not the best way to reduce the level of carbon released by cars, said Kevin Traas, the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association’s director of transportation policy and finance. A better approach, which the U.S. Department of Transportation announced last week, is to increase vehicle mileage and emissions standards for car manufacturers, he said.

A more long-term solution the AGC supports would levy a tax on the number of miles vehicles travel, Turmail said.

But the amount of money raised for transportation projects will be reduced regardless of the mechanism used to control fossil fuel use, Komanoff said. If a new tax on miles traveled is approved, the money should be used to plug holes in state budgets or pay for schools and public transit, he said.

“We’re going to be driving fewer miles 10 years from now than we are now,” he said. “There’s no way around it.”

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