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Proposed federal gas tax hike stalls in deficit commission

Traffic flows along I-794 in Milwaukee recently. The federal government-proposed gas tax hike hit a snag Friday in the  (Staff photo by

Traffic flows along I-794 in Milwaukee recently. A proposed 15-cent gas tax hike hit a snag Friday. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

By Joe Lanane

National transportation builders might have to wait another 17 years before seeing the federal gas tax increase.

A federal deficit panel rejected a plan Friday that would have increased the federal gas tax for the first time since 1993. The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform failed to approve a large scale cost-cutting program that proposed boosting the federal gas tax by 15 cents. The 18-member panel garnered only 11 of the 14 necessary votes to push its recommendation to Congress.

The national transportation budget gets 90 percent of its money from a 18.4-cent federal gas tax, according to Brian Deery, senior director of the AGC of America’s highway and transportation division.

The federal gas tax has been at the same level since 1993. Inflation has significantly decreased the gas tax’s value, Deery said, making it difficult for state highway programs to maintain roads.

“The gas tax lost about 60 percent of its purchasing power since the last time it was raised, and even then it wasn’t enough to fit all the needs,” he said. “It’s had a huge impact on this segment of the construction industry.”

On average, Deery said federal money makes up 41 percent of state transportation budgets. But because the federal gas tax does not raise enough revenue, Pat Goss, executive director of the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association, said Congress has raided more than $30 billion from the general budget to cover transportation costs.

Without an increased gas tax, he said the federal government will struggle to find an alternative method to make up the transportation gap.

“Either they do what they’ve been doing the past several years and take money from the general fund, or do nothing and live with the dollars we have,” Goss said, “which would reduce spending on transit aid as well as highway and airport infrastructure.”

The last federal transportation bill was approved in 2005. It expired last year, but Congress has granted five extensions, each lasting three months, to keep the law alive. The fifth extension expires Dec. 31.

A $500 billion proposed transportation bill was passed by the U.S. House during the last legislative session, but Goss said the bill never got a vote in the U.S. Senate because there was there was a $150 billion shortfall.

Because the commission’s recommendation failed to gain approval, a federal gas tax hike must go through the traditional legislative process, said Debbie Gebhardt, chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Tom Petri, R-Fond du Lac.

“If that’s the case, every state is going to be receiving less funding for the program,” Gebhardt said, “and it’s probably unlikely the new congress would on its first year raise the gas tax, I would think.”

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