Federal Gas Tax Hike Touted To Replenish Highway Fund

Motorists from coast to coast are once again facing the prospect of higher prices at the gas pump.

Not courtesy of the petroleum industry -- but Uncle Sam.

There's a bipartisan proposal in the Senate to raise federal gas taxes by 12 cents a gallon, and many San Diego-area motorists -- who bear some of the nation’s most extreme petroleum costs – could soon find themselves doing double-takes.

"I'm not ready to pay 12 cents more per gallon, that's for sure,” said Coronado resident Donna Dwemke, as she gassed up Tuesday morning at a Shell station in downtown San Diego. “It’s already crazy.”

Others are just resigned to what seems inevitable: “"I don't care, I pay what it is,” said El Cajon resident Chris O’Hea. “Not much you can do about it."

In this case, progress in fuel efficiency is a real factor behind the tax hike proposal: It's actually been a drag on funding for freeway infrastructure.

Now, motorists are looking at a two-thirds increase from the current federal levy of 18.4 cents a gallon – unchanged since 1993 -- over two years, with automatic bumps for inflation after that.

That’s because the Federal Highway Trust Fund, which bankrolls roads, bridges and mass transit, is just about tapped out.

Officials say better gas mileage and more "alternative fuel" vehicles have taken a toll on revenues.

Money from other federal sources has been directed into the highway fund in recent years, but it’s drying up, too.

The only short-term fix, lawmakers warn, appears to be defaulting to a tax hike.

Says Mission Hills resident Noelle DeSantis, looking fiscal realities in the eye: "We drive the cars anyway. We might as well have safe roads and bridges to drive on.”

The increase is being endorsed by road builders and the American Automobile Association, and denounced by taxpayer advocacy groups as “anti-growth”.

Ironically, owners of conventional-fuel cars figure to pay most of the freight for the tax hikes; the alternative-fuel crowd will shoulder very little.

Is that fair?

"Unfortunately, it seems the only people that have the wherewithal to pay for the higher taxes can afford the hybrid cars,” says Stacy Woeppel, a resident of the Poconos in Pennsylvania traveling in San Diego in a rental car Tuesday on a business trip. “So no, it doesn't seem especially fair."

That's why there's now talk in Washington of taxing for the highway fund on the basis of "vehicle miles traveled" instead of gallons of gas.

"It’s the idea of 'no free lunches", says Gary Gallegos, executive director of the San Diego Association of Governments, which administers local allocations of federal transportation funding. “Everybody's got to pay their share of the usage that they're getting."

But how and when does Uncle Sam do the accounting, collection, and enforcement of “VMT”-based taxation?

"They say the devil's in the details, right?” Gallegos told NBC 7. “So I think, great idea -- but the devil's in 'how do we make something like that work?'"

While California has a healthy annual growth rate of almost 25 percent in alternative-fuel vehicles , Maryland and the District of Columbia boast over 40 percent.

Government and public-agency fleets account for a lot of that, along with big subsidies for alt-fuel vehicle purchases and fueling-station startup costs.

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