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Brink: A 25-cent hike in the federal gas tax is a rotten idea for Florida

There are rumblings again about raising the federal gas tax by 25 cents. [Associated Press, File, 2017]
There are rumblings again about raising the federal gas tax by 25 cents. [Associated Press, File, 2017]
Published May 24, 2018

No matter your politics, the proposed 25-cent hike in the federal gas tax is a lousy idea.

It's regressive, burdening the poor and working class more than the rich.

Federal interference with state transportation projects can raise costs, layer on regulations and push out private investment.

And, for some critics, too much is spent on pet projects like sparsely-used light rail and bike trails to nowhere.

Here's another reason to consider: Florida isn't getting its money's worth.

The federal tax on gas dates back to 1932 when President Herbert Hoover agreed to add a penny to every gallon. In the 1950s, the feds began using a fuel tax to help build and maintain the interstate highway system.

The idea was to eventually abolish the tax. That didn't happen, as is often the case with new taxes. Instead, it was raised several times to where it is today — 18.4 cents a gallon, 24.4 cents for diesel.

Much of the federal fuel tax ends up in the federal Highway Account, which largely pays for building and repairing highways and bridges.

In 2016, the most recent figures from the Federal Highway Administration, Florida pumped almost $1.9 billion into the Highway Account, and received nearly $2 billion in return. In 2015, it was $1.8 billion in and almost $1.9 billion back.

Florida has contributed $46.7 billion and received slightly more than $48 billion, since the Highway Account was established in 1956.

Getting more back than we put in — $1.3 billion since 1956 — sounds like a good deal, right? Not so fast.

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The Highway Account often doesn't collect enough in fuel taxes to pay for all the desired highway repairs and new construction, so Congress kicks in extra from other sources. In 2016, the fund doled out $4.9 billion more than the states contributed.

The extra boost makes nearly every state look like a winner. In fact, only three states — Texas, Maryland and North Carolina — didn't get back more than they contributed in 2016.

The biggest winner: Alaska. It got back $521 million, nearly six times the $90 million it contributed. West Virginia contributed $237 million and received $456 million.

Missouri and California were near the average, getting back about 1.14 times as much as they paid in.

Florida's comparatively puny 1.05 ratio put us in the bottom 15 states for 2016. Calculate the numbers since 1956, and Florida comes out even worse. With a ratio of 1.03, the state tied for eighth lowest return. Who's at the very bottom? Texas: $83 billion in, only $79 billion back, for a paltry return of 0.94.

The highway program "creates winners and losers," wrote Jeffrey R. Brown, a Florida State University Department of Urban and Regional Planning professor, when he and a colleague looked at highway program spending between 1974 and 2008.

Brown's 2013 study found that the program wasn't favoring states with larger or busier highway systems or poorer states that needed extra help. Instead, the bigger shares went to rural states and states better represented on key Congressional committees.

"We found that the typical indicators of need did not explain what was going on, so there did not seem to be a good policy justification or public finance justification for what we were seeing," Brown said in a recent interview with the Tampa Bay Times. "The rural issue, as well as a state's stronger political representation, particularly in the Senate, were more important."

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Does that sound like a good way to divvy up billions of dollars?

The country certainly needs to raise enough money to build and repair roads and bridges. Raiding other federal coffers only masks the shortfall, and contributes to the mushrooming national debt.

One solution: States should pay for more of their own transportation needs. They already apply their own fuel taxes to finance projects. Florida adds an average of about 34 cents a gallon, depending on the county. States could raise, or lower, those taxes as needed.

If they want to move away from a gas tax, they have other options: enact more tolls, increase vehicle licensing fees or figure out a way to charge motorists for how many miles they drive, which would help account for the increasing number of electric cars that don't pay the gas tax.

The country has a lot of infrastructure needs, but most of the projects, whether they be in California, Montana or Florida, serve a local purpose, or at best, a regional one. They are not national in scope anymore.

The country isn't racing to lay railroad tracks through new territories like in the 1860s and 1870s, and the interstate system was largely built out 25 years ago. It would take a lot of creativity to define the recent Interstate 275 upgrades in Tampa as being of national importance. Locally, vital. Nationally, not even a blip.

"There is no sense anymore in road users in Florida subsidizing users in other states, or vice versa," said Gabriel Roth, a research fellow at the libertarian-leaning Independent Institute and author of several books about roads and transit. "If one state makes better use of its road money, it should not be subjected to the wasteful ways of other states."

The federal system of redistributing highway funds adds a layer of government bureaucracy to a process that no longer needs it. This is road building, not national defense or environmental protection. A 25-cent increase would only exacerbate that inefficiency by funneling even more tax dollars through a flawed system.

States have a better grasp of their own transportation needs, and already have their own funding sources. It's time to make better use of them.

Contact Graham Brink at gbrink@tampabay.com. Follow @GrahamBrink.

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