Raise Taxes or Risk Disaster, What Is Best for the U.S.?

The United States is in a slow-motion train wreck that has nothing to do with the shutdown, Obamacare, or the pace of the economic recovery. In fact, if you own a new electric car from Tesla (NASDAQ: TSLA  ) or hitch a ride to work on a natural-gas-consuming city bus powered by Clean Energy Fuels (NASDAQ: CLNE  ) or Westport Innovations (NASDAQ: WPRT  ) you're contributing to the problem. The impending disaster actually stems from decreasing consumption of gasoline by the nation's automobile fleet and ends with collapsed bridges, compromised hazardous waste storage, a failing energy grid, and archaic wastewater treatment facilities.

What's the problem, you ask? The growing gap in required infrastructure costs and revenue generated from federal gasoline taxes. It's a simple relationship: As average fuel economy increases, gasoline consumption, and therefore tax revenue, decreases. Now of course, no one is suggesting that we stop using alternative fuels and improving efficiency, but there is an enormous problem on the horizon. Should we raise taxes, which two-thirds of Americans are against, or risk disaster with the nation's crumbling infrastructure?

The state of American infrastructure
D+. That was the grade assigned to the overall health of the nation's infrastructure by the American Society of Civil Engineers, or ASCE, in 2013. It shouldn't be too surprising considering a great majority of American tunnels, bridges, water pipes, and electrical grids were constructed over 50 years ago.

Image source:

Hey, at least we got a B- in language arts! 

ASCE estimates the country will need to invest $3.6 trillion to enter the 21st century. Let's put that in perspective. Based on 2012 figures from the World Bank, the sum of $3.6 trillion equates to:  

  • 23% of American GDP
  • 43% of China's GDP
  • 106% of Germany's GDP
  • 179% of Russia's GDP
  • 100% of the GDP of the bottom 136 countries
  • 5% of the entire world's GDP

If you think the grades or price tag required to bring our infrastructure into the 21st century are arbitrary, consider what's at risk. The Mississippi River Bridge in Minneapolis allowed 140,000 vehicles to cross America's longest river along I-35W daily. Although the bridge was rated as "structurally deficient" in 2005, the state didn't schedule for the bridge to be replaced until 2020, presumably when funding became available. That would prove too late. Minnesota's fifth busiest bridge collapsed on August 2, 2007, killing 13 people and injuring 145 others. Unfortunately, it wasn't the only bridge rated so poorly.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons / Kevin Rofidal

Is America risking further infrastructure disasters?

You can see exactly what contributed to the poor grades for each category by reading the full report card (link opens PDF). While understanding the problem in its entirety is important, the summary of the report doesn't require much persuasion: America's infrastructure desperately needs an overhaul. Can increasing federal gasoline taxes be a simple solution?

Polite countries sip their gasoline
The federal tax on gasoline is 18.4 cents per gallon, while the average state imposes a total additional 31.1 cents per gallon. While states steadily increase their taxes over time to increase revenue and improve their environmental footprint, the federal tax hasn't budged since October 1, 1993. That's a big problem. Remember that $3.6 trillion figure? Well, the federal gas tax generated just $24.6 billion in 2012. Depressing enough, but after accounting for inflation it's actually $4.5 billion less spending power than generated in 1993 -- despite a 17% increase in consumption!   

The problem is worse than just sitting on our hands for two decades. Even if we were to raise gasoline taxes on a per gallon basis, the amount of revenue generated each year would decrease with the current trend in consumption.

Source: Energy Information Administration

Increasing use of biofuels and alternative technologies and improving fuel efficiency are driving gasoline consumption downward. Throw in the new Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards that will require automakers to roughly double the fuel economy of their fleets to 54.5 mpg by 2025 and it becomes clear that raising federal gasoline taxes may only be a small part of the solution.

To illustrate, consider the following annual revenue matrix of increasing taxes and fuel consumption scenarios.

Federal Gas Tax, Cents Per Gallon

Consumption: 133 Billion Gallons (current)

Consumption: 120 Billion Gallons

Consumption: 110 Billion Gallons

18.4 (current)

$24.6 billion

$22.5 billion

$20.2 billion


$38.0 billion

$34.6 billion

$31.2 billion


$51.4 billion

$46.8 billion

$42.2 billion


$66.9 billion

$61.0 billion

$55.0 billion


$133.8 billion

$122.0 billion

$110.0 billion

Source: Author's calculations

Uncle Sam could have taxed gasoline to the tune of $1.00 per gallon in 2012 -- on top of state taxes -- and still would have only generated roughly $134 billion in revenue. At that pace it would take 27 years to invest fully in our current infrastructure needs. That doesn't mean federal gas tax increases should be off the table, but they surely won't bridge the gap on their own. Is there anything we can do to dig out of our funding hole?

Alternative solutions
As you can see, we're in a bit of a catch-22 as a nation. On one hand it's great to encourage the production of alternative fuels and electric and natural gas vehicles. Tesla believes it can deliver 21,000 vehicles in 2013 on the way to disrupting the makeup of the American auto industry. There's quite a long way to go, but who in their right mind would bet against Elon Musk over the long term? Meanwhile, Clean Energy Fuels and Westport Innovations are implementing the infrastructure and technology needed to convert the nation's commercial vehicle fleet to run on abundant natural gas. The former has already built a national network of refueling stations for truckers. Unfortunately, these innovations won't help generate revenue for public works projects because they reside outside of the current consumption tax model.

On the other hand it is a bit misguided to only tax gasoline consumption in the nation's transportation system if the goal is to fund infrastructure, not penalize gasoline use. What can be done? While taxes are an obviously unpopular choice no matter how they're construed, they're probably the "simplest" way to start hacking at the $3.6 trillion elephant in the room. They can also be implemented in a number of ways. Gasoline taxes could simply be indexed to 1993 consumption such that they always generate $30 billion (or some other figure) in annual revenue. That would gradually penalize gasoline automobiles, although it would create an incentive to invest in alternative engines -- spurring Tesla, Clean Energy Fuels, and Westport Innovations.

Or perhaps the government needs to look outside of transportation taxes for funding infrastructure, since not all the infrastructure in need of repair is related to travel. For instance, a small tax on our newfound energy reserves could go a long way. Better yet, it would generate a revenue stream that would grow with production and consumption. The only problem with taxing energy is that it, too, would eventually trickle up to all Americans.

Foolish bottom line
Regardless of what solutions we come up with to tackle our dismal state of infrastructure one thing is critically clear: America needs to begin investing in its future today. Each year we wait to even have a discussion on the topic is another year we risk more disasters like the Mississippi River Bridge collapse. As a citizen of America's "City of Bridges" -- with a world-record 446 bridges -- I don't want to risk the inevitable. Do you have an idea that could help fund our infrastructure deficit? Tell me in the comments section below.

Taxes are a part of life, but YOU can fight back!
Tax increases that took effect at the beginning of 2013 affected nearly every American taxpayer. But with the right planning, you can take steps to take control of your taxes and potentially even lower your tax bill. In our brand-new special report "How You Can Fight Back Against Higher Taxes," the Motley Fool's tax experts run through what to watch out for in doing your tax planning this year. With its concrete advice on how to cut taxes for decades to come, you won't want to miss out. Click here to get your copy today -- it's absolutely free.


Read/Post Comments (29) | Recommend This Article (7)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On October 27, 2013, at 10:21 AM, bobthegoodone wrote:

    We have given out so many temporary tax breaks as well as loop holes over the years you think it might be time for some of these to end after as long as 30 years ? Seems temporary tax breaks NEVER end just like those given out by Bush , how much are we losing in taxes each year from these breaks as well as loop holes , how about a Trillion A YEAR !

  • Report this Comment On October 27, 2013, at 11:15 AM, redduster wrote:

    Really our whole tax system needs overhauled, as well as what we spend on. Now infrastructure I agree we need to spend on. Heck the part of we need to look to the future I agree on. But we look short term most times. I don't think we need to Fix our infrastructure but I would like to see some R&D on improving beyond what is needed. But I am also cynical and don't see it happening.

  • Report this Comment On October 27, 2013, at 11:30 AM, superduty wrote:

    the fact that the most prosperous times for the country were the ones that had the highest tax.

    As of the infrastructure there is a rail bridge near me that is 111 years old the trains creep over it the roads are shot. These things are here for our use but are also for the defense of this country and for emergency use (earth quakes,fire,and flood). Our neglecting these things is doing us all harm and endangers our freedom. I understand that we don't like taxes but they are a requirement to keep us safe to pay for the repairs and maintenance of the infrastructure that allows it to happen.

  • Report this Comment On October 27, 2013, at 11:31 AM, peterwolf wrote:

    How about trying this first ?? Hold on to your hats folks:


  • Report this Comment On October 27, 2013, at 12:18 PM, Stel wrote:

    I would suggest that no one start worrying too much about gasoline taxes and the like while there remains that Pentagon/war budget of something approaching 1000 billion USD per year... I also suggest that whatever modest cuts is required to keep the green incentives going( if there must be cuts perhaps cut the massive subsidies to oil&gas) will in only a few years result in much less pentagon spending to secure foreign sources of energy.

    That is off course presuming that the Pentagon/National security apparatus involves itself in the middle east because of US energy needs...

  • Report this Comment On October 27, 2013, at 12:26 PM, Barmil wrote:

    I see other countries like Japan, Switzerland, Germany all of them have a real plan for infrastructure that spans at least 25 years,

    This country on the other hand doesn't respond until we are in crisis mode and the chicken little cry the sky is falling. In our case it really is!

    I look at Hiroshima and Nagasaki , I look at Berlin,

    Even the Swiss look at their new tunnel for the rail system.

    Now look over at Detroit, Along the aged east coast

    stuck in the 19th century. I am not saying all is bad but in the other urban areas I described they have progressed to include growth and renewal.

  • Report this Comment On October 27, 2013, at 12:31 PM, lobsters101 wrote:

    How about migrating away from Union contracts? The cost is outrageous for these projects, I know, I work in a related industry.

  • Report this Comment On October 27, 2013, at 1:00 PM, DaSky wrote:

    How about cutting spending Motley socialists?

  • Report this Comment On October 27, 2013, at 1:21 PM, noncon4mer wrote:

    It's time to quit denying that the forces behind our government aren't, deliberately, forcing our Constitutional Republic into a state of collapse, in order to bring America into compliance with the global agenda of the New World Order.

    ALL of the debating, and reporting, about taxes, obamacare, welfare, social security, dwindling food supplies, national security, etc., are tools of distraction, to keep the American citizens off balance and to prevent an organized resistance against the insidious "global agenda".

    America, has been slated for death, and the ONLY action that could save America at this point, is a national revolution, ... of the People, by the People, for the People, of this great Republic.

    Will the American citizenry heed the call, stand their ground, like their forefathers were forced to do, unite as one great force, and slay the dragons that truly threaten our kingdom, or will we, as a People, coward before our enemies, and accept the lies that define our death as a nation?

    I am only one man, ... one voice, ... but as an American, I can do no less that to repeat the words of greater men, who came before me,

    ... "I can speak for no others, but as for myself, give me liberty or give me death."


  • Report this Comment On October 27, 2013, at 1:43 PM, fharrison431 wrote:

    Why not stop wasting valuable assets and sending federal money to cities to install brick pavers. I remember a city using federal money a while ago and they knew that the water mains would have to be replaced, but they wasted the federal money anyway, "because it was available". 8 years later all the pavers were torn up and junked. The money should go to fix infrastructure. Why is it available. I remember the Congressional Representative's reelection signs about how she got $50 million spent in her district. To do that she would have to get 216 other reps to approve it, probably by agreeing to at least the same expenditure in their districts.

  • Report this Comment On October 27, 2013, at 1:56 PM, sjhurani2000 wrote:

    Just like household income - it is based on your paycheck. The federal tax revenue should be based on individual/business revenue and not profit. No deductions whatsoever. This fixes all the tax loopholes.

    Next target - slice and dice that federal tax revenue towards various needs, social security, medicare, heathcare, INFRASTRUCTURE, Security, etc. with a buffer for energency needs like war, disease, disasters, etc.

    Once this is established, we will not need politicians to make financial decisions - it should be done by a committee of professionals - not lawyers

  • Report this Comment On October 27, 2013, at 2:04 PM, captaintodzilla wrote:

    Unsafe streets , extreme poverty , mass shootings , bombings , children molested , schools drained , but hey .....congress is rich , gays are prioritized ,and corporations are protected and find ways around paying taxes. Good job America lots to be proud of. currently we have blind leaders supported by a nation of masterdebaters.

    The government is acting like a sixteen year old kid that thinks it knows everything. "If there isn't justice for the people let there be no peace for the government." Doing the same thing over and over is insane. Fix America First. Prioritize. Recycle America ,turn things around. The Government should fear the people, opposite of how it is now. the government should protect people and regulate corporations not protect corporations and regulate people. We need to Build a good foundation then rebuild. Reinstate common sense. Create Accountability and most of all treat our cancers greed , ignorance and self-entitlement.

    Our society runs the way it does because it is designed that way for the rich by the rich. There are many common sense simple ways to change things to make a better world to live in. Until we can prioritize correctly , have accountability , and worry about the American instead of the American dollar things will remain perverted.

    Anyone can find fault -- it's not a sign of anything other than moderate brain activity. It's much harder to offer creative criticism that actually improves the situation for everyone involved, UNITED we stand divided we fall...there is only one race the HUMAN RACE all the divisions of political parties and skin color have demoralized this country into a sewage plant of lying stealing ignorant greedy self-entitled hypocritical idiots the government has had too much money power and time with too little results actions speak louder than words.

    Being successful doesn’t necessarily make you great. What makes you great is when you reach back and help somebody else become great. unfortunately no one cares. no one with power anyway. enlightenment finally after watching Swipe yo EBT (It's Free) on you tube everything fell into place. now that the middle class has been eradicated the united states are truly united once again now we are left with the rich and the poor that equally agree on greed ignorance and self-entitlement. both parties the rich and the poor demand something for nothing are good for nothing have no morals and only care about themselves. actions speak louder than words.

    If Being smart enough to do the job replaced being rich enough or politically correct enough then we would have a chance. playing the blame game masterdebating and spending other peoples money is all our government is capable of ( actions speak louder than words ) .

    NOTE TO THE MASTERDEBATERS: morals priorities accountability and education was my point but people only hear what they want to hear. Both sides are half correct and half @ fault if each side would stop using their correct points as a shield to cover and hide the problems they have then everyone will continue to live in an unsafe world. prioritize what's important , Hold people and corporations and politicians accountable for their actions and invest more into our education system than into our prisons politicians and every other entity that has taken away from our children and our schools. I understand the Rich cant see that there are issues because they are protected from most of what's unfair and are filled with lies and lawyers and politicians that ease their uneducated minds and the poor people are phukd because they are poor and no one cares or listens.

  • Report this Comment On October 27, 2013, at 2:17 PM, BradOrdy wrote:

    Our Federal government is insidiously inefficient. The usual government budget policy of "spend it or loose it" is a plan for bankruptcy.

    The fact is that the feds are beyond bankrupt. This article is just a sub-topic of the continuing corrupt politics of congress and the administration. I'm ok with taxes but I don't trust the Feds do deliver on a honest and efficient product.

    We are not going to have sound infrastructure. But we all will have heath care when it all falls on us!

  • Report this Comment On October 27, 2013, at 2:42 PM, amvet wrote:

    Our government is good at serving the foreign country Israel, the wealthy, and big business. They spend little or no time looking after the USA.

    We have no enemy countries that endanger us but we have over 1000 out of country military bases and are in a constant state of panic about security.

    Our social security system has a surplus of almost three trillion dollars and yet our media and Republican politicians shriek that SS is busted or even "unfunded".

    At the moment, our military, foreign aid, spying, prisons, corporate aid, and interest on our debt eat up much of our spending, but these are not news worthy.

  • Report this Comment On October 27, 2013, at 2:52 PM, glenns45 wrote:

    Cut spending we now have 190 million on government assistance,a corrupt Federal Reserve and a national debt that is more than our GDP.Alex Jones infowars

  • Report this Comment On October 27, 2013, at 3:51 PM, MsAbby wrote:

    Funny they never say they will stop spending on foolish social engineering programs that just create more poverty.

    We just keep borrowing on our children's future.

  • Report this Comment On October 27, 2013, at 3:54 PM, MsAbby wrote:

    AMVET - surplus in SS? WOW, according the the US Treasury and CBO, we are slowing going broke because LBJ put the income into the general fund so he could spend more on his Great Society Programs.

    SS, Medicare, Medicaid and a lot of other programs like food stamps, and particularly Obamacare are sadly under funded.

    In fact, according to the US Trearsury, our national DEBT is $87 TRILLION if you count under funded and unfunded future obligations and population growth.

    Plus we pay the FED and it's shareholders interest and dividends while the create money out of thin air for us to pay for our programs. Funny out under-educated most of you are about economics.

  • Report this Comment On October 27, 2013, at 3:59 PM, clutch1958 wrote:

    I thought Obama's stimulus went to infrastructure? Another lie. Where did all the gasoline tax money disappear to, if not used for infrastructure?

    How about taxing the hybrid and electric car owners for the wear and tear that they put on our roads?

    Those hybrids weigh almost as much as my 3/4 ton Chevy pickup.

  • Report this Comment On October 27, 2013, at 4:01 PM, clutch1958 wrote:

    No countries that threaten us?

    You must have been believing Oliar-according to him Iran, North Korea-these are tiny countries that pose no threat..

  • Report this Comment On October 27, 2013, at 4:06 PM, broknrekord3 wrote:

    There's no quick fix, that's quite clear. What we're seeing is 30 years of delayed renovations and we're trying to suddenly tackle these issues. I think that closing loopholes, placing additional taxes on businesses that disproportionately use the roads (major trucking/logging companies, etc), raising the gas tax, and in the renovation of the roads we design roads that are made to last longer with less wear and tear. It doesn't take a scientist to see that if you're pouring asphalt 6 inches deep and then 6 inch chunks get ripped up during winter plowing, you might need to reconsider the toughness or the depth of the asphalt. We have the technology and we have the man power, hopefully we can see folks come together and get something done for all of us, although I won't hold my breath.

  • Report this Comment On October 27, 2013, at 5:13 PM, vsantiago210 wrote:

    Tax or not to tax is of the same fruitn" Banana, different peel same fruit, because money is base on how much dollars we have in the bank, the value would be less if we spend more than we tax, and if we tax more and not spend it will make a strong dollar of which will affect our export, there is no perfect solution on this except if money will be based on gold reserved we have, It was during President Reagan who abolished the reserved to abloish the gold as a standard to combat communism, he succeeded why not return to the gold standard so we have a basis and not a non stop printing money of which we used to bribe economies and used war to drive the dollar on its stable currency, the more we corrupt world leaders with foreign aid the stronger the dollar would be, corrupt official hoard their money in Swiss bank, caves and dungeon, just like the drug lords and smugglers., dollar is base in productivity the more we produce the value of the dollar goes up, the more dolllars are hoard the value dollar goes higher too. Politicians tend to make their point based on their constituents or who support them to have the job, lobbyist, oligarchs, wall street billionaires, etc.. , hypocrisy in a democracy, unless the middle class and poor take an action to support their interest we are doom to wrestle everyday and not enjoy the fruits of what we labor.

  • Report this Comment On October 27, 2013, at 5:34 PM, luckyagain wrote:

    Lets be realistic. American for the most part do not give a damn about fixing the infrastructure until the bridge that they drive across every day falls down or other similar disaster happens.

    So lets just admit that enough Americans are so opposed to paying more gasoline taxes that if President Eisenhower was trying to build the Interstate highway system, he could not do it. Instead he would be called a RINO and Senator Cruz would call him a socialist. By the way President Eisenhower was a Republican and the Army General who planned the D-day invasion that helped ended WW II for all of you who skipped history class.

  • Report this Comment On October 27, 2013, at 5:38 PM, Mathman6577 wrote:


  • Report this Comment On October 27, 2013, at 5:45 PM, amx05462 wrote:

    whats new here the taxes will be raised on the working man the rich will slide

  • Report this Comment On October 27, 2013, at 7:29 PM, Ean144 wrote:

    the problem in the US is wasteful spending on projects that are designed to fail (solar for example). We send billions to 3rd world nations and yet we are 17 trillion in the hole. Another point is that socialism is no guarantee that you will have great infrastructure. (costa rica and the Dominican republic come to mind). This article talks about having the highest level on prosperity during the highest taxes, well I think it had more to do with the lowest level on gasoline cost during the Clinton years. I never heard of a country have prosperity due to taxes, but to careful spend and low cost of living and good increases in salary. On tax reform, the current tax codes have more pages than the bible and Koran combined. Have a realistic flat tax and cut out the foreign and domestic handouts and balance spending with income. Gasoline is so taxed that gas stations make more profit margins on bottled water and soda than gasoline.

  • Report this Comment On October 27, 2013, at 11:31 PM, n05nam wrote:

    October 28, 2013 11:20AM Philippines. Raise Taxes or Risk Disaster, What is Best for the U.S.? Do not raise tax and do not risk disaster. The only way to collect more taxes is to increase population by setting United States into OPEN-COUNTRY in exchange for more tax collection from the American Citizen and Foreign Citizen in the American soil. An American Citizen should be earning $250/day minimum with full benefits from the employer from finance, house, car, healthcare, education and insurances while foreign citizen will have it same as the American in exchange for same business taxes and salary taxes within the American soil. -End 11:32AM

  • Report this Comment On October 27, 2013, at 11:37 PM, watson14 wrote:

    The picture of the collapsed bridge in Minnesota - while we were spending billions to invade Iraq. If we stop wasting all our tax dollars on these foreign adventures, just maybe ..........

  • Report this Comment On October 28, 2013, at 6:53 AM, Compostheap wrote:

    Well, y'all gotta admit, we do have the biggest, baddest, ships, military jets, cruise missiles, high-tech gadgets, guns, bullets on the planet. To facilitate this delusional preoccupation we spend 60% of the federal budget (Dept. of Defense, War, VA, Nuclear Weapons program) on keeping that all together, and that does NOT include our newest obsession: Homeland Insecurity 4.5%. On the other hand, Health and Human Services gets 7%. Health, the one thing that is essential to a happy life gets 7%? Housing and Urban Development = 3%? Bizarre! And people wonder why we are considered loud and brash...?

    If we use Maslow's hierarchy of human needs, the bottom of the pyramid includes breathing, food, water, sex, sleep, "homeostasis" and excretion. You'd think that health and housing along with urban development would have something to do with breathing, food, water, etc. However, we tend to focus on having our control issues consume our federal budget with over 120 foreign military bases. When we decide not to control every little zippity-do-dah that goes on, like what did German Chancellor Merkel say about...and focus on our own process, then maybe, just maybe, we'll take care of our own challenges here at home.

  • Report this Comment On October 28, 2013, at 8:53 AM, Stel wrote:


    I think most would agree with cutting spending with the lines being drawn on which programs the cuts should come from? Will they come from the military industrial intelligence complex (and this is practically never discussed in the MSM) where the effects would be trifling on continental security or will they come from the social safety net programs that Americans struggled centuries to gain?

    We know what what the tea party and republicans in general want and that the democratic party now only exists to offer token resistance.... We know that the people are overwhelmingly in favor of single payer health care, meaningful jobs that offer both security and sanction for those who do not do their part, safety nets that support families well while they seek employment and most of the other things that are so often ascribed to 'socialist'! In reality these aspirations/inclinations are quite natural and widely shared by the citizens of civilized societies everywhere.

    The question is not whether these programs should exist ( they will be gained in one way or another in either the short or long run) but how to effectively prevent those who we expect to provide services for us from being the type of people that will empower themselves at our expense.

    The critical aspect can then quickly be seen to be 'national security' the one thing that we can not provide ourselves and the one reason a state can always claims as the reason behind this or that centralization of power or need for this or that social/infrastructure spending cut.

    If you want to prove yourself useful that is a question you can ask and help the rest of us work towards resolving.

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