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Tolling Points

For Blumenauer, Gas Tax is the End of the Beginning

Bill Cramer

It was a special treat to see Rep. Earl Blumenauer in full bicycling gear last month, during the opening session of IBTTA’s Transportation Finance and Road Usage Charging Conference.

Meeting in Portland, the city where he served as city commissioner before entering Congress in 1996, participants heard Blumenauer give a spirited defense of his proposal to raise the federal gas tax—and declare that the gas tax isn’t the end of the fight for adequate transportation funding, just the end of the beginning.

“We’re proposing that we go ahead, we raise the gas tax 15¢, we phase it in over three years, we index the gas tax, and then ideally, I’d like to get rid of the gas tax,” he said. “Because, for all the reasons you know, the tax is not sustainable in the long run.”

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Blumenauer said he’d been told his gas tax legislation was unrealistic and politically unpopular. But 19 states have increased their gas taxes in the last two years, five more have already done so in 2015, and “of all those politicians in state legislatures who voted to increase the gas tax prior to the 2014 election, 98% of them were re-elected,” he said.

When he introduced his original gas tax bill, Blumenauer had 23 co-sponsors and widely diverse support from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO, bicyclists, engineers, local governments, auto clubs, and truckers, “all saying we want you to increase our taxes because America needs it. It was all the political cover any politician could ever want. And I’m politically unrealistic?”

State Governments Know Best

Blumenauer said he’ll be one of the 5,000 volunteers taking part in the Oregon Department of Transportation’s road user charging (RUC) pilot project when it opens July 1. And he’s introduced national RUC legislation, a companion measure to his gas tax bill, “because it’s time to extend the Oregon experience.”

He urged participants to join him and his co-sponsors in a two-step process to reform and stabilize highway infrastructure funding. “Step one is to make sure Congress steps up and keeps the federal partnership vibrant and well-funded,” he said. “It’s embarrassing that we’re about to enact the 24th short-term extension of the transportation funding bill. No country became great building its infrastructure nine months at a time.”

The second step is to recognize that the gas tax is just an interim solution.  “It’s something we must do. But it’s not enough. The road user charge isn’t just a more effective long-term solution to providing adequate resources to transportation. It’s also an opportunity to transform transportation in this country, because the same technology that will enable us to keep track of how far people travel, not where people travel, will enable us to make the driving experience more enjoyable for the motorist and more effective for people who care about congestion.”

Allies and Potential Allies

Earl Blumenauer has spent his career fighting for smart, effective, multi-modal transportation, and his success is etched into Portland’s city landscape.

But there are many more allies and potential allies out there. Legislators at all levels who start out with a basic concern about mobility, opportunity, and choice for their communities—the basic values that user financing supports.

In conversations across the country, drawing on relevant data and hands-on experience, tolling and RUC professionals are gradually helping them translate that concern into practical solutions.

Click here for the latest on IBTTA’s Moving America Forward campaign.



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