Will The Federal Gasoline Tax Be Grover Norquist’s Next Hostage?


Matt Yglesias writes: Will The Federal Gasoline Tax Be Grover Norquist’s Next Hostage?


With the debt ceiling controversy all but resolved, and hostage-taking once again proven to be an effective strategy for achieving conservative policy goals, Washington is wondering what the next fight will be. Byron Tau and Ben Smith in Politico plausibly speculate that the scheduled September 30 sunset of the federal gasoline tax may be the culprit. The gas tax, in addition to serving important environmental goals, is the means by which the federal government finances investments in transportation infrastructure. Traditionally, reauthorizing the tax for that purpose has been uncontroversial (though the idea of raising it to finance needed infrastructure upgrades hasn’t been) but in this day and age everything could be on the table and Tau & Smith report that Grover Norquist seems to be at least considering the idea

“In general, ATR has always supported the idea of ending the federal tax on gas and having states pay for their own roads,” Norquist told POLITICO, but he declined to say whether he or his group plans to pressure congressional Republicans to let the excise tax expire.

“ATR would love to help begin such a dialogue,” he said.

“We’re monitoring the situation. I think that everyone on the Hill and most outside groups are pretty focused on the nation’s debt crisis,” said Barney Keller, spokesman for the conservative Club For Growth, who also wouldn’t say whether his group wants the tax to expire.

There’s no denying that the gas tax is a tax, so in that sense it’s difficult to see why anti-tax groups wouldn’t argue against its reauthorization. More broadly, the traditional reason reauthorization has been uncontroversial is that neither Republicans nor Democrats wanted to see infrastructure spending fall to $0 so nobody was willing to use the gas tax as leverage for concessions. But by the same token, the traditional reason the debt ceiling hasn’t been used as leverage for concessions is that neither Republicans nor Democrats wanted to see the country default. This summer, however, the world has learned that Republican leaders can simultaneously agree that the debt ceiling needed to be raised while also demanding major policy concessions in exchange for agreeing to raise it. Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) is already pushing a transportation bill that will starve the country’s infrastructure and devastate job creation in both the short- and long-term. If the gas tax becomes a new hostage, the situation will only get worse.


It is important to remember that most travel is local, so there is a not beyond-the-pale argument for returning the responsibility to the states. Especially since the completion of the interstate system, the federal role has been drifting. There needs to be a strong rationale for federal involvement. This includes:

  • interstate commerce,
  • the use of untolling to avoid the beggar-thy-neighbor consequences of each state having toll roads,
  • a contract between states to ensures some minimum level of expenditure (and implicitly quality of service) across all states, this includes rebuilding the interstate highway system, which needs a major recapitalization.
  • a way of avoiding 50 fights about raising the state gas tax if the federal gas tax disappears.


However the gas tax should better be viewed (and legally restructured) as a user fee, so we can avoid this needless politicization.


David Levinson

Network Reliability in Practice

Evolving Transportation Networks

Place and Plexus

The Transportation Experience

Access to Destinations

Assessing the Benefits and Costs of Intelligent Transportation Systems

Financing Transportation Networks

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This page contains a single entry by David Levinson published on August 2, 2011 10:32 AM.

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