Editorial: Consume or invest?

gas pump photo illustration

Which would you personally prefer? (1) An all-expenses-paid (including tip) dinner for two at the Inn at Little Washington; or (2) all the nation’s needed roads, bridges and other infrastructure be constructed, maintained, repaired and made safe.

It’s not a trick question but a hypothetical one premised on the fact that gasoline prices at the pump have dropped so much in the last few months that the average driver’s annual savings, a windfall really, is more than enough to splurge on a luxurious dinner at the five-star Inn.

But is that how most citizens want to use the extra money in their pockets — spending on personal consumption and instant gratification? Or would they be willing to pay a higher gasoline tax — to replenish the insolvent Highway Trust Fund — investing in the long-term economic health of the nation of which they are a part and which presumably will pay them dividends in the future?

Taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel have financed the Highway Trust Fund since its creation in 1956 during the Eisenhower Administration. The last time the tax was increased was 1993, to its current level of 18.4 cents-per-gallon. Since then, despite the obvious need, few politicians have had the nerve to even suggest that the tax be increased.

And so America has become just “one big pothole,” in the words of former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Our outdated, decaying and unsafe transportation infrastructure now resembles that of a third-world country — in stark contrast to our global competitor, China, whose political will is generating the most ambitious infrastructure projects the world has ever seen.

Even normally anti-tax conservative like columnist Charles Krauthammer has called for increasing the gas tax — by a whole dollar. On the other side of the political spectrum, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman sees a gas tax increase as a win-win all across the board — economically, environmentally and in the interests of national security.  

In 1982, Ronald Reagan wasn’t afraid to raise the gas tax. Given our currently low gas prices, today’s Big Washington politicians have even less reason to fear the putative wrath of their constituents, who might actually prefer to invest their gas-price savings, rather than squander the money on instant gratification. Who knows, maybe our own Congressman, Robert Hurt, will be a courageous leader in at least thinking about the once unthinkable.

Walter Nicklin