The federal tax of 18.4 cents per gallon of gas was last raised in 1993, and with its revenue in what’s seen as an irreversible decline, Congress has transferred $34.5 billion from other sources into the trust fund since 2008.
Now, much like state legislatures, Congress could opt to increase the per-gallon tax, perhaps indexing it to inflation to ensure a steady rise in revenue. It also could abandon the gas tax in favor of a carbon tax, which would require oil and electric companies to pay a tax on every ton of carbon pollution linked to their business.
A $20-per-ton fee has been suggested in some studies, though $30 per ton is charged in some foreign jurisdictions. That cost would be passed on to consumers in higher gas or electric prices.
Another option is charging drivers for the miles they travel, an approach that could be used by both federal and state officials. That could take several forms: among them, toll roads, tolls on express lanes and computerized monitoring of the distance each vehicle travels.
This concept did not fare well in the opinions of the 300 people that the Transportation Planning Board assembled in five groups — two in Virginia, two in Maryland and one in the District.
Virtually all participants agreed that congestion is a critical regional problem. Most, however, didn’t know how transportation needs have been funded for more than half a century.
When several options were presented to increase transportation funding, the most popular was increasing the gas tax. That initially won support from 21 percent of the participants, but support increased to 57 percent after they considered all the alternatives. By contrast only 30 percent of those who responded to a 2010 survey backed a gas tax increase.Similarly, members of the discussion group initially were skeptical of tolling proposals, but they ultimately agreed that the best of several options would be tolling on major highways rather an on all roadways or for specific congested areas.
Half that many — 15 percent — said they supported replacing the gas tax with a per-mile charge for distance driven. While 28 percent said they might support tolls on new roads, only 15 percent said they were willing to see new tolls on existing roads.
The study pointed out that three of the region’s five most expensive recent projects — Virginia’s two HOT lane projects and Maryland’s Intercounty Connector — were financed based on projected toll revenue.
Although study participants were reluctant to endorse options that would cost them money, the people who participated in the study were eager to see more money spent. More than three-quarters of them said more should be spent on transit systems, 53 percent wanted more money to go to roadways, and 58 percent backed greater funding for pedestrian and bicycle projects.