Updated at 4:45 p.m.
Washington – Sen. Chris Murphy, in partnership with Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, has renewed a push to raise the federal gasoline tax — a move to shore up a transportation fund that will soon run out of money, threatening road and bridge projects in Connecticut and elsewhere across the nation.
The federal Highway Trust Fund was propped up last summer through temporary funding set to expire in May. About half of the trust fund’s money comes from a federal gas tax, now about 18.4 cents a gallon, that hasn’t been increased since 1993. Since then Americans are driving less and cars are more fuel efficient, while the cost of building roads and highways has gone up.
Murphy’s proposed fix is to raise the tax 12 cents a gallon over two years.
If new money isn’t added to the trust fund before the May deadline, federal highway money to states would be severely cut. Despite the looming deadline, however, Congress has not come up with a permanent solution to keep the highway trust fund completely solvent.
“Nobody likes to pay more gas tax,” Murphy said. But he said the tradeoff in better transportation is worth the price. He also said the gasoline tax is one area where Connecticut receives more from Washington than it pays in.
“The reality is that Connecticut does incredibly well when it comes to the gas tax,” Murphy said. ”It gets $1.60 in transportation funds for every dollar paid in gas taxes.”
That’s because the trust fund distributes money to the states in a formula that’s based in part on how many miles are driven on that state’s federal highways.
Murphy suggested a gas tax increase last summer but has not introduced a bill yet.
The recent precipitous drop in gasoline prices has prompted some to say that imposing a hike in the gas tax now would not be as tough for drivers to accept as it was when gasoline hovered near or above $4 a gallon.
But there are huge political obstacles to Murphy’s idea.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said last week the Obama administration wants to adhere to a plan to finance new infrastructure spending by closing tax loopholes that favor the wealthy.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said there is little appetite in Congress for the plan.
“I don’t know of any support for a gas tax increase in Congress,” he said.
Most House Republicans have taken a “no new taxes” pledge.
But Murphy said those lawmakers may be persuaded to vote for his plan by including in his legislation an extension of a series of tax cuts for businesses and individuals that are not a permanent part of the tax code and that Congress must vote to renew nearly every year.
Murphy also said he and Corker are open to other ideas that would shore up the highway trust fund.
“We are just sick and tired of people saying money grows on trees,” he said.
Meanwhile, state transportation agencies, including Connecticut’s Department of Transportation, have said it is difficult to plan large infrastructure projects with the fate of the highway trust fund in flux. Arkansas and Tennessee have announced they intend to delay highway construction projects because they are not certain that sufficient federal funds will be available.