Summer driving season is here — time for us to repeat ourselves on the cost of a gallon of gasoline. Specifically, it should be higher. Congress last raised the federal gas tax in 1993, which means that the 18.4-cent-per-gallon levy has fallen more than 40% in real terms. That is a rough indication of how much incentive for consumers to drive less, and to drive more fuel-efficient vehicles, thus reducing carbon emissions, Congress has passively forfeited. The shrinking gas tax is a major reason the Federal Highway Trust Fund has enough money to meet its obligations only through fiscal 2020.
If all of that provides another reason to lament policy paralysis on Capitol Hill, thenJuly 1 was an occasion to celebrate a surge of policy activity in the states. On that date, gas taxes went up in 13 states, including not only blue states such as California and Illinois — where the tax rose for the first time in 29 years — but also red ones such as Indiana, Nebraska, South Carolina and Tennessee. (Connecticut’s increase affected only diesel fuel.) In several cases, the tax increases represent scheduled hikes previously enacted as part of multiyear phase-ins. More states are also choosing to index their gas taxes to inflation or other economic benchmarks, enabling regular increases to preserve the tax’s real value without a political fight each time. Such a provision accounts for the 1.4-cent rise in Maryland’s tax that kicked in July 1; it’s based on a formula implemented in 2013. Also, Virginia’s tax went up 7.6 cents on the first of the month — but only for sales along the Interstate 81 corridor.