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Jared Huffman: Tax carbon emissions, rather than gas, to pay for roads

Intent on funding transportation projects and fighting climate change, North Coast Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, has proposed a carbon tax on gasoline to replace the long-stagnant 18.4 cent-per-gallon federal excise tax that pumps more than $300 million a year into Bay Area highway and transit improvements.

With some political momentum to boost the federal tax building at a time of low gas prices nationwide, Huffman’s bill - the Gas Tax Replacement Act of 2014 - would eliminate the direct tax on gasoline sales and replace it with a levy based on the carbon content of transportation fuels, including biofuels and different types of crude oil.

Paid by refineries, the carbon tax would initially be set at $50 per metric ton of carbon dioxide emissions, amounting to nearly 50 cents per gallon at the pump, Huffman’s staff said.

The amount may seem steep, Huffman said, but the current tax would have to be boosted 10 to 20 cents a gallon to balance the federal Highway Trust Fund, which has come up about $16 billion short in recent years and will again face a shortfall in May.

“We are playing catch-up on the gas tax,” said Huffman, a new member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Had the gas tax been indexed for inflation, instead of fixed at 18.4 cents for about 20 years, the fund might still be solvent, he said.

The carbon tax rate would be adjusted over time to ensure sufficient support for the highway fund.

The gas tax, set at 24.4 cents per gallon on diesel fuel, has been the primary source for federal transportation projects since the 1950s.

California depends on the fund for about 48 percent of its transportation budget, receiving about $4 billion a year, Huffman said. The San Francisco-Oakland metropolitan area receives about $300 million annually for highway and transit funding, and Sonoma County - in a separate area - is set to receive $8.8 million in the current fiscal year.

Huffman is the author and sole sponsor of his bill, introduced this week, aimed at replacing what he called the “chronically under-performing” gas tax. It would put in place a tax “that will accurately reflect the carbon emissions” of gasoline and diesel fuel, he said.

In stabilizing the highway fund, the new tax would also stimulate “advancements in clean energy technology,” reduce carbon pollution and combat climate change, Huffman said.

“I have my eyes wide open,” he said, anticipating there may not be strong support in Congress for such a dramatic departure in gas tax policy. He is also supporting a measure in the works to increase the existing gas tax, which needs approval by the end of May when an $11.8 billion stopgap highway funding measure approved last summer expires.

House Speaker John Boehner said last week that approval of a gas tax increase seems unlikely, according to a Fox News report. But at least four Senate Republicans said they would consider an increase, given the need to address the nation’s crumbling roads and bridges.

The Western States Petroleum Association, which represents the oil industry in Arizona, California, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington, did not return repeated calls for comment on Huffman’s proposal.

“Eventually, I think we’re going to have to do something like this,” Huffman said of the carbon tax proposal. The gas tax is “on its way to becoming obsolete,” he said.

Now is an opportune time for change, he said, with relatively cheap gasoline prices expected to save U.S. consumers as much as $75 billion this year, according to the AAA.

Plunging crude oil prices put the national average price of a gallon of regular gas at $2.10 on Wednesday, and $2.57 in California, both down more than a dollar from a year ago.

Californians pay 63.79 cents per gallon in gas taxes, including the 18.4-cent federal tax, the second-highest rate in the nation, behind Pennsylvania with 68.9 cents per gallon, according to the American Petroleum Institute’s report this week.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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