The National Conference of State Legislatures is pushing for a temporary increase in the federal gasoline tax as part of its pitch to Congress on how the nation's highway funding program should be revamped. But states like Texas do not support a hike in the tax because they already get a disproportionately lower amount of funding from the program compared to the tax revenue they contribute.
The NCSL's policy on "surface transportation federalism," which was approved by at least 38 states and adopted in July, asks Congress to approve a short-term "increase in the federal gas tax ... until a new, more stable long-term funding mechanism for surface transportation can be put in place."
The highway trust fund is supported mostly by gasoline and diesel fuel tax revenues. Those revenues have not kept pace with outlays to states, and the fund almost ran out of money earlier this year. Panicked states warned they would need to cut highway and bridge projects, but the crisis was averted by Congress' last-minute transfer of $8 billion from the general fund to the highway trust fund.
The NCSL acknowledged that it may be unlikely for Congress to pass a temporary federal gasoline tax hike in the immediate future.
"It's right before an election, and the gas prices have finally come down, so it's not necessarily going to be very popular for the federal government to say, 'We know you're not paying as much for gas now, but we're going to turn around and raise the tax so that you are,' " said Michelle Blackston, media and public affairs director for the NCSL. "We want to keep it high on the priority list for Congress in this administration, as well as the next administration."
Blackston also noted that states may have individual policies that are not in accord with every part of the NCSL's platform. However, the plan was debated and discussed by the whole group, she said. Every state was allowed one vote.
The fund's revenues cover about 20% of surface transportation and infrastructure projects and are doled out to states using a formula of factors such as vehicle miles traveled on the Interstate system, diesel fuel used on highways, and total lane miles on principal arterial highways divided by the state's population. Some states have questioned the amounts they are given, arguing that the grants should more closely match the share of revenues the state's drivers contribute to the fund.
Texas contributed $49.65 billion to the federal highway trust fund between 1956 and fiscal year 2006, but received $44.02 billion from the trust fund during that period to use for transportation projects, according to data from the Federal Highway Administration. The 89% return was the lowest ratio of any state during that period. The state's total gasoline tax - state and federal combined - is currently 38.4 cents per gallon.
As a result, the Texas Department of Transportation said a federal gas tax increase would not benefit the state.
"The first thing it would mean is that Texas would continue to send more money to Washington than it would get back," said spokesman Chris Lippincott.
He said levying more federal gas taxes or indexing the tax to inflation while trying to reduce emissions is like "trying to feed your family with a dying tree."
Texas has turned its focus towards building toll roads and obtaining private sector assistance for other toll road projects in order to meet its needs, he said.
Alaska easily took the highest apportionment-to-payment ratio from the federal highway trust fund between 1956 and fiscal year 2006, according to FHWA records. The state received 643% of what it paid into the fund during that period, and 421% during fiscal year 2006. There is no state gasoline tax in Alaska.
"My guess is that Alaska almost always benefits [from federal gasoline taxes], and we probably receive more than we pay in," said Alaska state Rep. Jay Ramras, a Republican and chairman of the state's House Judiciary Committee, which will hold a hearing on the price of gas in Alaska today.
The NCSL does not take a position on whether states should raise their own gasoline or diesel fuel tax rates to further supplement their highway and bridge budgets.
But its platform includes several other ideas for longer-term funding sources, some of which would parallel Texas in encouraging assistance from the private sector.
"Congress should expand credit-based and loan guarantee programs to incentivize private sector investment - particularly for freight mobility by rail, highway, and waterway," the group said. The platform said tolling, value-pricing, and public-private partnerships should be under the states' purview and not used as federal funding mechanisms.
The NCSL's plan also asks for expansion of "incentive-based programs," such as tolling, congestion pricing, public transit and telecommuting.
Another association of state policymakers, the National Governors Association, did not comment on the NCSL's platform. The association does not take a position on federal or state gasoline taxes, public-private partnerships, or other matters related to federal highway policy, said NGA spokeswoman Jodi Omear.