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Blumenauer uses Summit keynote to rally troops around gas tax increase

Posted by on March 4th, 2014 at 7:40 am

Blumenauer at the Summit-2

Time is right for a gas tax increase,
says Rep. Blumenauer.
(Photo by J. Maus/BikePortland)

—BikePortland’s coverage from Washington D.C. is made possible by Planet Bike.

Amid the backdrop of renewed optimism that a new transportation bill is coming sooner than later, Congressman Earl Blumenauer headlined the opening plenary at the first full day of the National Bike Summit. Blumenauer used the occasion to urge the 700-plus advocates to help him push a gas tax increase as a way to steer the federal government away from the impending cliff transportation funding is heading off.

It’s the first time in 21 years, Blumenauer said, that he’s stumping around the country for a gas tax increase. Why? Because the doomsday scenario of the Highway Trust Fund drying up are becoming very real, very fast.

“The Highway Trust Fund is going broke faster than we thought.”
— Andy Clarke, League of American Bicyclists

In his introduction of Rep. Blumenauer, League President Andy Clarke said, “The Highway Trust Fund is going broke faster than we thought.” And Blumenauer backed up that insight with his take on the current reality: “We’ve run the Trust Fund down to zero this year, and unless something is done, by October 1st, there will be no resources.” Blumenauer said state DOTs will start pulling back funding before October. “You’ll start seeing it this summer, states will start holding back contracts.”

Because of this impending financial emergency, Blumenauer said “Something [with a new transportation bill] is very likely to happen.” Clarke agreed, saying that even though advocates have heard countless times in the past that a major transportation bill is imminent, “This times it’s different. Staff are writing bills, committees are meeting.”

This outlook is in stark contrast to Blumenauer’s tone at previous Summit, when partisan gridlock was at all-time highs. Today, he said, “There are some little tiny glimmers of hope.”

“I know some of you might be nervous bringing up such a controversial topic. But you just lost dedicated funding [in the last transportation bill], so what are you afraid is going to happen to you?”
— Rep. Blumenauer

With transportation proposals from President Obama and a Senate Ways and Means committee “DOA,” Blumenauer thinks the time is right to start start pushing for a gas tax increase. He recently shared his ideas on the subject at a Harvard Business School luncheon that featured Fortune 200 CEOs, the presidents of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO, engineers, construction trade reps, and others. “Everyone was there supporting a gas tax increase.” It was a broad and powerful coalition that Blumenauer said was notably absent from the proposals announced by Obama and the Ways and Means Committee.

It was the first time in 21 years that Blumenauer presented a gas tax increase proposal.

So, Blumenauer asked the crowd, “Why is it that people are reluctant to talk about a gas tax increase?”

Blumenauer then urged the advocates to carry his message back to their communities and up to Capitol Hill during tomorrow’s Lobby Day. “I know some of you might be nervous bringing up such a controversial topic,” he added, “But you just lost dedicated funding [in the last transportation bill], so what are you afraid is going to happen to you?”

With a big coalition forming to influence the next transportation bill, Blumenauer said now is the time to start making allies. “If this is a food fight,” he warned, “Some of those coalition members are going to toss you under the bike. But if our agenda is working with them to achieve their ends, I think there’s an opportunity to get new allies.”

If bike advocates don’t act fast, Blumenauer said they risk becoming a “budget balancer”. “It’s said that if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. It’s critical for you to be part of this conversation.”

As usual, Blumenauer’s speech infused the room with a sense of purpose and inspiration for that lies ahead. “America needs you to be successful. You have too much invested not to be part of that big picture. The message that you’ve been bringing to Capitol Hill year after year after year has lost none of its resonance. And indeed, is needed more now than ever.”

— See all our 2014 Bike Summit coverage here.

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  • Pete March 4, 2014 at 8:28 am

    I’ve been waiting a long, long time for a politician with the courage to bring up a gas tax increase or inflation-indexed rate (and yes, I’m a motorist too). Get rid of the “Hummer Loophole” – which goes up from $25K to $34K in 2014 – while you’re at it!

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  • Art Fuldodger March 4, 2014 at 9:56 am

    if the Federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon was indexed to inflation when it was last raised in 1993, it would now be nearly 30 cents (62% inflation). No wonder the highway trust fund is busted.

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  • q`Tzal March 4, 2014 at 12:12 pm

    The gasoline tax needs to be indexed by axle weight as AASHTO’s(American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials) own “4th Power Law (less wonky Wikipedia explanation).

    It’s not that people walking or riding bicycles don’t “use” limited road resources, it’s just that something twice as heavy as me causes SIXTEEN TIMES the road wear.

    Personal automobiles will continue to get more fuel efficient contributing the same gas tax for more miles driven. Electric cars currently don’t pay a milage tax (as the gasoline tax was originally believed to be) or by weight. We sure would be in a hurry to fix that hole if Elon Musk’s proposed Giga-factory for lithium batteries made full electric cost effective for big freight trucks.

    Tax ’em by the wear and tear they cause on a shared public resource not on their choice of carcinogen they pump in the tank.

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    • dr2chase March 5, 2014 at 12:59 pm

      I have read, from a careful and apparently authoritative source (Road Work, by the Brookings Institute) that it is merely cubic in per-wheel load. That’s still pretty appalling, and it means (among other things) that city buses are very hard on roads. To the best of my calculating ability, the incremental damage caused by the first person riding on a bus is larger than if that person had hopped into a single-occupancy SUV instead.

      (Math here on the bus claim: )

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  • J_R March 4, 2014 at 12:24 pm

    Typical measures of inflation only begin to show how the politicians have failed.

    If you look at the Corps of Engineers civil construction cost index for category of roads, bridges, and railroads, you will find that since 1993, the inflation in those categories has gone up by 79.7 percent. That would mean the federal gas tax should be 33 cents per gallon.

    Meanwhile Oregon has raised the gas tax only once (in 2011) since 1993. Oregon’s tax was 24 cents per gallon in 1993 and based on the construction cost index, it should be 43.1 cents per gallon instead of its current 30 cents.

    Not only is the cost of construction greater, we added to the list of required items for the transportation system. Add in all the other “new” stuff that’s mandated – replacing culverts with bridges to restore salmon habitat, installing curb ramps for ADA accessibility, etc.

    Finally, there’s increased cost of operations. Consider, for example, that the price of electricity to power traffic signals has gone up.

    It’s years past time for the gas tax to have been increased!

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    • 9watts March 4, 2014 at 4:47 pm

      I’ve advocated for a stiff hike in the gas tax for most of my life. But In the last month I’ve decided it is a bad idea. If we’re broke we can’t build the CRC and the other hundred and one stupid transportation projects the folks at ODOT and elsewhere cook up.

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  • Chris I March 4, 2014 at 4:01 pm

    Blumenauer is one of the few politicians in this country that can propose a gas tax increase and not worry about losing re-election. A vocal minority knows that a gas tax increase would be good for this country, but the vast majority of Americans either believe driving should be subsidized, or don’t care enough to help. Gas tax increase proposals are political poison for most of congress. I have trouble imagining an environment where something like this would actually pass.

    Perhaps a campaign that highlights the drawbacks of subsidizing long commutes, gas-guzzling vehicles, and trucks? Show a clogged interstate, or a polluting pickup, or several large semi trucks next to a small car with the message: “Do you want your income tax dollars subsidizing this?” New taxes are extremely unpopular, so you need to show the benefits.

    Proponents also need to be prepared for the inevitable smear campaign from the Heritage Foundation types, who will point out that some of the funding goes towards public transit.

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    • q`Tzal March 4, 2014 at 6:10 pm

      Chris I
      Perhaps a campaign that highlights the drawbacks of subsidizing long commutes, gas-guzzling vehicles, and trucks? Show a clogged interstate, or a polluting pickup, or several large semi trucks next to a small car with the message: “Do you want your income tax dollars subsidizing this?” New taxes are extremely unpopular, so you need to show the benefits

      The problem is that the average American is going to hear the preceding argument as being Pro-Building-More-Lanes because a gas tax is supposed to be to build us more roads so everyone has a lane to themselves.

      Yes, I know.
      We can’t pave our way our of gridlock but try explaining that convincingly to someone who has only ever driven a motor vehicle. Induced demand is not easy to convey to people of the graduate educational level of out public school system. Explaining to anyone that they may have to fundamentally change their way of life because we’ve been living la vida petrol and now there just is no more is going to be painful at best.

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  • GlowBoy March 4, 2014 at 4:57 pm

    As with the minimum wage, failing to index the gas tax to inflation was a monumentally stupid thing. Whether we can actually pull off an increase (politically) is another story, of course.

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  • dwainedibbly March 4, 2014 at 5:10 pm

    i wonder, if an increase can’t get passed, if a bill indexing the gas tax to inflation could get passed. It wouldn’t raise any real money, but at east it would prevent the tax from falling even farther behind. (Or maybe make it inflation plus 2%, or something. By the time it gets caught up, nobody will be using petroleum anymore.)

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  • Pete March 4, 2014 at 6:18 pm

    Earl doesn’t have a good track record for getting his ideas enacted. The problem predates the last 8 years of dysfunctional congresses. He’s in danger of becoming the left-side equivalent of the whack jobs on the right. All talk, no action.

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    • mike March 5, 2014 at 2:48 am

      I agree, one has to be effective at the same time they are advocating their ideas. If your not effective then your just talking to talk. Anyone who thinks the gas tax is going to be raised is on drugs…ain’t going to happen. I pedal probably 80% of the time, car 20% so my comment isn’t coming form a pro-car point of view.

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      • 9watts March 5, 2014 at 6:42 am

        “Anyone who thinks the gas tax is going to be raised is on drugs…ain’t going to happen.”
        It is going to get raised. It has to. Maybe not tomorrow, but the writing’s on the wall, the floor, the ceiling, even the windows.

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      • Pete March 5, 2014 at 9:42 am

        I agree with 9watts. Politicians typically don’t take a controversial stance like this without the backing of their party, and Earl is just coming at Barak’s objectives (increase funding for jobs) from another angle. Don’t think this is a solo effort…

        (I’m a different “Pete” btw… OGP).

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      • dr2chase March 5, 2014 at 1:02 pm

        The gas tax is surely not going to raise itself. Someone’s got to make enough noise to create room for Sensible Liberals ™ to talk about these things.

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  • Martin Vandepas March 6, 2014 at 11:31 am

    I think a high gas tax is a good idea to incentivize less driving. I think we should write a law now that guarantees 10% gas tax increases every 2 years for the next 30 years. This way people have time to plan their lives to be less dependent on cars and it’s not such a drastic change. Should I buy that house far from where I work and play? Maybe not if the gas tax is going up. Should I take that job across town? Maybe not a good idea anymore. Should I buy a fuel efficient vehicle? Yes. Maybe I’l look into biking to work…

    Gas tax should be a sin tax like tobacco or alcohol. Consumption of gas has a terrible effect on society: Smog, traffic, global warming, unwalkable communities, etc. The tax should be a way to discourage this bad behavior. The money can fund schools, bike infrastructure, anything. Or just reduce taxes on income to make up for it. That should make republicans happy.

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    • Mossby Pomegranate March 9, 2014 at 9:09 pm

      Hey it’s called Climate Change now!

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  • Paul March 6, 2014 at 12:04 pm

    I’ve never understood the opposition to an increased gas tax when the benefits would be so obvious in the form of improved infrastructure, along with benefits to the economy in the form of jobs, etc. Pump prices can swing wildly at the pump by $1.00/gallon or more, and motorists grudgingly accept it, but a modest tax increase is absolutely verboten.
    Interestingly, I’ve never seen a proposal to apply a gas tax comparable to a sales tax, as a percentage of the sale, rather than a fixed amount per gallon. And when oh when is Oregon going to start charging for the damage done by studded tires?

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