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Unless Congress acts, federal gas and diesel taxes will fall by about 80 percent on September 30.  If this is allowed to happen, spending on our nation’s already inadequate roads and transit systems will likely plummet, and Congress will face massive pressure to make up the difference through deficit spending or rerouting spending from other vital priorities.

Clearly, these outcomes are not ideal.  That’s why extending the gas tax – albeit at low rates – has always been a routine and bipartisan undertaking.  Today, however, the visceral opposition to taxes by many in Congress has led some observers to believe that the debate will be more hostile than usual, and that there is a real possibility – though small – that the gas tax will actually be allowed to expire.  Simply put, there is less and less that is “routine” in our nation’s capital anymore.

In a surprising and fortunate twist to this story, Grover Norquist stated flatly recently that a gas tax extension would not violate the no-tax pledge that 277 members of Congress have signed.  This should have already been obvious to anybody who’s taken the time to read Norquist’s 57-word pledge (it clearly applies only to income taxes), but his admission was nonetheless helpful in making that fact known.

Perhaps more surprising, though, was a confession by one of Norquist’s employees that allowing the gas tax to fall so quickly would be too disruptive.  You know the situation is serious when even Norquist’s group is cautioning against tax cuts.

Less encouraging was Norquist’s recent promise to push for a system in which states could opt-out of the federal Highway Trust Fund, and instead finance their roadways entirely with tax revenues generated inside their borders.  If allowed to happen, this would mark a major retreat from the federal government’s long-running role in helping to maintain our nation’s Interstate highways.

It should go without saying that the Interstate highway system is of immense importance to interstate commerce, and that there is an obvious federal role to be played in ensuring the smooth functioning of that system.  For example, the federal government has always seen to it that large, sparsely populated states are able maintain their expansive highway networks for the good of the national economy.

With this in mind, it should come as little surprise that the organization representing state transportation departments (AASHTO) believes that the federal government’s involvement must continue.  As AASHTO representative Jack Basso recently remarked to Stateline, “The real question is can you maintain a national system, given the diversity and the breadth of geography in the country and the population situation, without some kind of national program? I think the answer is ‘No.’”

Unfortunately, while there appears to be a growing consensus that the gas tax should be extended, there’s still a possibility that it will be “taken hostage” — just like the debt ceiling and most of the Bush tax cuts were within the last year.  If that happens, it’s very likely that the outcome of the current transportation debate will be much more skewed toward Norquist’s priorities than would otherwise be the case.

Photo via Gage Skidmore Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0