Should We Raise the Gas Tax?

The biggest barrier to innovation is sometimes the fact that it’s cheap enough to do things the old way. Why develop new foods when the old ones are popular? Why create new cars when existing ones fit everyone’s needs?

That rationale is particularly true at the moment for energy, and especially gasoline. As environmental groups call for cleaner and more sustainable ways to produce energy, the inconvenient fact is that fossil fuel is cheap. Natural gas continues to be found in great abundance. And for much of 2014, as a result of booming supply and advanced technology to drill in more remote places, oil prices have cratered, reaching their lowest point in more than four years. Inexpensive gas eliminates the incentive to create new energy sources that, compared to the retail price of $2.72 per gallon, won’t be cost competitive.

That’s exactly why it might be a perfect time to raise the gas tax. A bipartisan pair of U.S. lawmakers— Reps. Tom Petri (R-Wisconsin) and Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon)—is quietly pushing the idea, arguing that America’s roads are decaying faster than they can be repaired. A gas tax would bring billions more to America’s annual infrastructure budget, which is currently at a decade-long low of $34 billion. It would also, in the process, make gas artificially more expensive, allowing renewable energy research to be a more forgiving financial risk.

No one likes higher taxes, of course. But in this case, the folks at point out an imbalance of benefits over costs. A 15-cent increase on each gallon of gasoline would mean that the people who use roads the most are the ones who pay for them. It would mean that fuel efficiency would rise as car makers try to reduce the cost of driving. And it would mean tomorrow’s ways of powering cars—with hydrogen, solar panels, even human excrement—might arrive in large scale sooner. It’s unreasonable to do when gas is expensive. It only makes sense when its cheap.