The perfect moment to fund highway infrastructure

Gas is cheap. Roads and bridges need fixing. Stars are aligning.

The plummeting price of fuel has created a political opening to enact gas taxes or find other ways to fund major transportation improvements. In Washington, the price at the pump has fallen from $4-plus a gallon in the not-too-distant pass to the $2 ballpark in recent weeks. This is a huge financial windfall for the public.

A 12-cent state gas tax increase would amount to a mere sixteenth of that windfall – and would pay for projects to ease congestion that covertly steals motorists’ money through wasted gasoline and lost time.

Some Washington lawmakers are skittish about pushing a transportation package when the Legislature is scraping up more money for public schools. But the two imperatives would be funded independently – the schools through operating money in the general fund, the infrastructure through a separate transportation budget that would leverage long-term bonds.

They compete for some money, but not so much that the Legislature couldn’t do both in the 2015 session.

It’s not only cheap gas that makes this an opportune time for transportation. For the last two months, Eastern Washingtonians have been getting an excruciating lesson in the importance of Western Washington infrastructure.

The labor dispute that has slowed the ports of Tacoma and Seattle has crimped exports of Washington-grown apples, potatoes and other crops. It’s obvious that the fortunes of agriculture are tied to the two ports. Some of the most tax-averse Eastern Washingtonians now understand the case for the Puget Sound Gateway project, which would protect port traffic from paralyzing congestion by extending state Routes 167 and 509.

What’s true of the state is also true of the nation.

Beginning in the Eisenhower era, the United States created an interstate highway system unmatched in the world. Now we begrudge the money needed to keep it from crumbling. The American Society of Civil Engineers currently gives the condition of our roads a D grade.

The biggest reason: Congress has not increased the 18.4 percent federal gas tax since 1993, and it has lost more than a third of its purchasing power.

This would be an excellent time for the Republicans who now control both House and Senate to show they can accomplish something important.

House Speaker John Boehner last week said he didn’t support an increase in the federal gas tax increase. Some other Republican leaders are open to the idea, though, and Boehner himself acknowledged the need for more highway funding.

That could conceivably be done without a higher gas tax. One interesting alternative – introduced by U.S. Rep. John Delaney, D-Maryland – is the creation of a $50 billion infrastructure fund that would pay for projects with 50-year bonds. It is designed to entice U.S. corporations to bring home some of the nearly $1.5 trillion they’ve invested abroad.

Congress and the Legislature may not see a political opportunity like this again for many years. And many years is too long for our declining infrastructure.