Column: It’s time to start thinking about roads and taxes like adults

A California highway and fruit trees
The federal gas tax, which finances the Highway Trust Fund, has not been increased for 28 years.

(Tomas Ovalle/ For The Times)

The moment I realized I was a homeowner wasn’t in the down payment or first mortgage payment. It was the night the hot-water heater went out.

The appraiser told me it would need replacing soon, but I think I used my extra cash to buy a new flat screen. Felt smart in the moment. Anyway, my luck runs out, predictably, at one of the worst times — the shower. And it was here, during my involuntary impersonation of Phil Dunphy, that I learned the difference between being a grown-up and being an adult. Grown-ups get stuff, adults take care of it.

This country has been in need of a new hot water heater since 1993, and I’m wondering where are the adults?

“User fee” is how President Reagan characterized the gas tax. Not a jobs bill or liberal wish list, but a user fee, meaning we all like and use freeways so we’re all responsible for the construction and upkeep.

But it’s been 28 years since the last gas tax increase, and the 18.4 cents per gallon established in 1993 falls woefully short of the 33 cents per gallon it should be today (44 cents per gallon for diesel) when we adjust for inflation. As a result, Congress has been playing a shell game with the Highway Trust Fund, which was designed to use revenue brought in primarily from the gas tax to help offset the infrastructure costs.


Sometimes Congress has robbed Peter to pay Paul to keep the trust fund solvent. Beginning with the last year of President George W. Bush’s presidency, the federal government has transferred more than $140 billion from the general fund to keep the highway fund above water. I don’t think I need to tell homeowners how difficult it can be to catch up once you start using the mortgage money to pay for something other than the mortgage.

Right now, the Congressional Budget Office estimates a highway funding gap in excess of $180 billion by 2030 if we maintain the status quo. Considering that our deficit is already the second largest since World War II, Congress will need to start adulting.

The nation’s infrastructure is fraying. In some states like Mississippi and Louisiana — both were given a grade of D+ for infrastructure by the American Society of Civil Engineers — fraying would be an upgrade. There are still upward of 10 million households receiving drinking water from lead pipes and service lines despite being banned 30 years ago in large part because lead exposure causes developmental issues in children. Not only are we saddling the next generation with our debt, we are also allowing them to be poisoned because elected officials on both sides of the aisle lack the fortitude required to do the mundane, unexciting aspects of public stewardship.

Of adulting.

This observation includes President Biden, whose ambitious infrastructure plan shies away from one of the most obvious ways to help pay for it: Raise the gas tax. Biden would raise corporate taxes somewhere between the levels left by former Presidents Obama and Trump, which is fine, but there is already resistance from both sides of the aisles. However, that doesn’t address the fact we’ve all been passing the gas tax buck to someone else.

Walter Mondale, the Democratic presidential candidate in 1984, told voters straight up that he would raise taxes because it had to be done.

That bit of truth won Mondale 13 electoral college votes. His defeat coupled with the ramifications of George H.W. Bush’s broken promise of no new taxes has made politicians fearful of any nuanced tax talk. Today the blueprint is to either target the ultra-rich or demonize our most vulnerable with talk of waste and fraud, like warnings about benefits “going to illegals.”


Like most things in life, the truth is somewhere in the middle, that place where most of us are but struggle to find representation. So as a result, we pick one extreme or the other and hope the water heater holds up.

Meanwhile, Jackson, Miss., loses water pressure for a month, and we tell the people to boil water and avoid flushing their toilet. Residents in Tampa Bay, Fla., home of the world champion Buccaneers, are hoping officials can pump enough contaminated water out of a failing reservoir to avoid 300 million gallons of waste and fertilizer runoff from heading their way in the form of a 20-foot-high wave.

Biden’s $2-trillion infrastructure plan is enormous. But so are our infrastructure issues. Let there be a spirited debate. But let it be between adults who at least understand a gas tax increase is long overdue and not between fearful grown-ups who want to kick this proverbial can down the road another 30 years because honestly, we don’t have another 30 years.

Right now our nation’s roads, which earned a D grade from ASCE, cost motorists “nearly $130 billion each year on extra vehicle repairs and operating costs,” which is just a tax by another name.

Last fall, in the midst of a pandemic that put the world’s first economy on its head, Netflix announced it raised its prices for standard service by $1 per month and premium prices by $2. And you know what, Regé-Jean Page’s departure from the network’s show “Bridgerton” stung us more.

Whenever a discussion about raising the gas tax is brought up, some form of “now is not the right time” is uttered. Well, the fund we use to maintain roads and mass transit is already on life support. Infrastructure is a public good, and even citizens who hate taxes need to recognize it’s time to pay up.