Wait! Don't raise gas taxes just yet

With gas prices plummeting for 103 days in a row now, the calls are getting louder to raise the gas tax to help shore up the almost empty Highway Trust Fund.

Some of those calls are even coming from anti-tax Republicans like South Dakota Senator John Thune.

Everyone agrees many of America's vital roads and bridges are in need of improvements and updates. It's not just about convenience, it's beginning to be more and more about safety and ensuring we maintain the key role reliable transportation plays in the U.S. economy.

Five states have already raised their gas taxes, using legitimate concerns about their infrastructure and the lower gas prices recently as an excuse. One of those states was North Carolina, which now has the highest state gas tax of any state in the South, despite being one of the poorer states in the US based on household income.

A customer puts gas into a vehicle at the U-gas station in Miami.
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A customer puts gas into a vehicle at the U-gas station in Miami.

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So, before Thune, the Republicans, or anyone on Capitol Hill and the White House signs off on a tax hike that will hit virtually everyone in America, especially the poor, we need to set three important conditions and rules:

Define "infrastructure." Tax-and-spend politicians like to use the word "infrastructure" in speeches a lot because when you say that word, most of us think of those vital roads and bridges. And who could possibly oppose improving our roads and bridges or at least keeping them safe?

But look a little more closely, and you find that the term "infrastructure spending" in Washington and many state capitals is slapped on to a lot of things that have nothing to do with what should be considered normal transportation.

I'm talking about spending for hiking trails, bus lines in towns with fewer than 50,000 people with no demonstrated need for mass transit, and millions for a museum in honor of the long-defunct Packard luxury car.

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I'm also talking about bigger concept infrastructure projects that cause massive budget overruns. Ask the people of Seattle about the massive highway tunnel digging machine nicknamed "Big Bertha." That $80 million behemoth is currently stuck underground and no one knows when it will be able to resume working on a $1.4 billion project. "Bertha," by the way has already burned through $1 billion of that funding and has completed just 11 percent of the job so far.

Can you say "cost overrun?"

Boston and the entire state of Massachusetts are still reeling financially from the infamous "Big Dig" project that finished more than five-times over budget and nine years behind schedule.

No one in Congress should even think of approving a gas-tax hike without a promise to prioritize all infrastructure spending. Existing roads and bridges with structural and safety problems should all be addressed before anyone even considers spending a penny on a Big Dig, Big Bertha, or little Packard museum.

And it's an insult that to defend these pork barrel and boondoggle projects, our dishonest politicians hide behind the "infrastructure" label and our slumbering news media mostly lets them get away with it.

We're stuck in America with too many people thinking that the only solution to failing programs is to throw more money at them with little or no assurance the money will be spent wisely. And the demonizing of those who refuse to send more money into these failing programs is a disgrace.

Index the tax to inflation and gas prices. It's all well and good to call for a tax hike of a dime or so when gas prices are falling by about a dime a week like they have been lately.

But when we get back to the more normal $3.50 per gallon again — and you know we will — that extra ten cents a gallon will really start to hurt.

Any gas tax hike bill should not only be indexed to overall inflation, like upper class tax cut thresholds, but should also call for reductions when gas prices alone hit certain levels.

Sunshine is the best disinfectant. Ever wonder why the guys on "Extreme Makeover Home Edition" can build an entire house in a week while it takes a New York City work crew six months to fix a subway staircase?

The reason is the companies contracted by politicians have an incentive to drag projects out and drive costs higher. There are many municipal projects where bonuses are paid if work is done sooner, but not enough.

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Infrastructure and road projects have been like a protected animal sanctuary for political patronage since the Romans built the Appian Way.

I don't know how much longer we all need to follow politics in America before we all realize that our elected officials only do things for two reasons: to repay potential campaign donors to help them get elected, or to gain new campaign donors to help them get elected. Their choices on which infrastructure projects will get done and who gets the contracts to do them are made accordingly.

Before anyone allows the state and federal governments to continue to make politically-weighted decisions when hiring infrastructure firms, a national website should be established with full information on each of these firms and their potential connections to elected leaders and staffers.

If the governor's top donor's cousin is the guy about to get the top road repair contracts in the state, the people ought to know before the contracts get signed.

If the bridge-repair company has a list of complaints longer than the Capitol steps, we should know.

You get the picture.

The root of our infrastructure problems can be summed up this way: politicians are only willing to spend the money to fix the problem if they also get a chance to essentially steal away a good deal of that money for other things too.

Only a more vigilant public, news media and responsible compromising Republicans in Congress can change that.

Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of "Street Signs." Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.