Fuel prices are posted at a filling station in Willow Grove, Pa., Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021. Credit: AP Photo/Matt Rourke

The BDN Editorial Board operates independently from the newsroom, and does not set policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.

Some members of Congress – along with candidates for federal office – are pushing for a suspension of federal fuel taxes. We realize that fuel prices have risen sharply in recent months, putting a pinch on the pocketbooks of many Americans. But, suspending the gas tax is a bad idea that would likely have long-term negative repercussions.

The candidates, like Democrat Alex Lasry, who is running for a seat in the U.S. Senate from Wisconsin, are pitching the gas tax suspension as a way to help working-class Americans.

“Wisconsinites need relief from high gas prices now,” Lasry said in a press release last week. “Congress needs to act immediately to suspend the federal gas tax. This is a commonsense measure that can bring immediate relief to working families across Wisconsin.”

Suspending the federal gas tax would save people up to $3 per fill up, he said.

We understand why this is a tempting way to save Americans a little bit of money. But, it is a shortsighted proposal.

The gas tax, a significant source of funding for road work in the U.S., is already falling behind in meeting the country’s infrastructure needs. The infrastructure — roads, bridges, railways, airports, ports — in the U.S. is rated 13th in the world, behind countries like South Korea and the United Kingdom.

This isn’t just a matter of ratings. Deteriorated and inadequate roads cost Americans a lot of time and money, and they are dangerous.

In Maine, deficient roads cost Bangor residents an average of $1,561 a year, according to a 2021 assessment by TRIP, a national traffic research safety group. The costs in Portland are nearly $1,400 a year. These figures include the costs of vehicle repairs, congestion and safety issues.

Gas taxes are an important part of funding for infrastructure improvements, although policymakers need to much more strongly consider moving to fee systems that include measures of miles driven, as newer vehicles use less — or sometimes no — fuel.

In the meantime, fuel taxes aren’t keeping up with funding needs.

The federal gas tax — 18.4 cents per gallon — has not been raised since 1993. As a result, the tax this year is worth only 10.2 cents per gallon after adjusting for inflation. The tax on diesel fuel is 24.4 cents per gallon and has also remained untouched since 1993. Neither are automatically raised (indexed) to keep pace with inflation.

According to Reuters, Congress has transferred about $141 billion to the Highway Trust Fund since 2008 to pay for road repairs because of insufficient fuel tax revenue. In addition, federal funding for transportation has declined, with states left to try to cover the costs of infrastructure repairs and improvements.

Maine, like most states, has its own tax on fuel. Those taxes — 30 cents per gallon for gasoline and 31.2 cents per gallon for diesel — have not been increased since 2011, when lawmakers passed legislation to end the indexing of fuel taxes in Maine.

Maine’s annual road and bridge funding shortfall — the gap between what the department says it needs to spend to maintain the system and the amount of money it expects to have available to fund this work — stands at about $230 million. And this assumes that voters will approve about $100 million in borrowing for transportation projects each year, so the actual gap is more like $330 million.

The recently passed infrastructure bill will help with some of this work, in Maine and other states, but it is not a replacement for fuel taxes.

If fuel taxes are suspended, additional funding would have to come from general government revenue, which means taking funds from other programs.

Fuel taxes are chronically unpopular in many political circles, but governments are currently reliant on them to help cover the rising costs of transportation work. Without a replacement, suspending the gas tax should be a road to nowhere.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...