WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A temporary tax on gasoline, diesel fuel or imported oil could provide billions of dollars for U.S. bridge upgrades, a leading congressional Democrat said on Wednesday.
Rep. James Oberstar, chairman of the House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, whose home state of Minnesota was the scene of the August 1 highway bridge collapse into the Mississippi River, said increased taxes on all three products could generate more than $40 billion over three years.
The figures were included in a highway bridge repair proposal unveiled by Oberstar as rescuers continued to search for victims from the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis. So far, five deaths have been confirmed.
The disaster has focused attention on aging and sometimes crumbling U.S. highway infrastructure, and strategies to fund expensive upgrades and replacements.
According to Transportation Department figures, more than 73,000 bridges are structurally deficient. One half of all bridges are more than 40 years old.
Structurally deficient means a bridge has major deterioration, cracks or other flaws. Most bridges are inspected every two years.
“We must act and act quickly,” Oberstar said of the need to address the problem.
He suggested that a three-year, 5 cents per gallon tax on gasoline and diesel fuel could generate approximately $25 billion for bridge reconstruction.
A $1 tax on each barrel of oil at the refinery stage, two thirds of which is imported, could bring in another $16 billion over the same period, Oberstar said.
The U.S. gasoline tax has been 18.4 cents per gallon since the early 1990s. The diesel fuel tax is 24.4 cents and there is no import fee on oil.
There has been little to no political will in Congress to raise gasoline taxes even though Oberstar and even some key Republicans supported the idea two years ago in highway construction legislation that included money for bridges. The Bush administration opposed the increase.
Reporting by John Crawley