On transportation, President Obama can plan on starting his second term the same way he began his first. Then, as now, the funding crisis for the nation's highways was a few years off but approaching fast. When the highway authority expiration date looms in 2014, no one will be prepared for it.
Unless things change.
A federal gas tax increase has been off the table for the last several years because it has been considered politically untenable to ask for more money from taxpayers during a recession. This unquestioned tenet has persisted despite the fact that the gas tax has stayed at the same level, 18.4 cents per gallon, since 1993. Moreover, taxpayers wind up footing the bill for road and bridge maintenance in other ways after the gas tax money runs out.
Now the economy is recovering, albeit slowly. And perhaps more importantly, President Obama doesn't have to worry about reelection. So it might be OK to revisit the suggestion that the gas tax could go up. American Road and Transportation Builders Association President Pete Ruane tried it the day after the election. In a statement, Ruane called for "a comprehensive solution for the nation's staggering transportation infrastructure" in Obama's second term. He didn't use the words "gas tax," but he suggested that the transportation proposals outlined by the 2010 Simpson Bowles Commission were a "road map for continued success." That commission called for an immediate 15 cent-per-gallon increase in the gas tax.
Is it time to talk about a gas tax increase? How could the idea be made more palatable to conservatives? Would a gas tax hike be easier to swallow if it was temporary? What longer-term strategies for infrastructure payment should be on the table? Will Washington be able to cope with such a discussion?