With the collapse of the Interstate 35W Bridge in Minneapolis there is renewed anxiety and focus on the condition of the nation's infrastructure, especially its highways and bridges. Concerns continue to be voiced about the condition of the electric grid, and recent sewer explosions and subway tunnel flooding in New York speak for themselves. The list could go on for pages. Or for that matter, just ask the good people of New Orleans. Maintaining plant and equipment is an executive responsibility, and the nation's infrastructure is our plant and equipment. If an executive's competence is to be judged in this context, then here too is failure on a massive scale.
But wait, it becomes more ominous yet. Gas taxes are the single largest funding source for the nation's highways. Americans pay an average of 47 cents a gallon for fuel taxes. In Canada it comes to $1 a gallon, $1.90 in Japan and $ 4.50 in Britain, all according to the International Energy Administration.
In the wake of the deadly 35W collapse the House Transportation Committee called for a fuel tax hike. More specifically, Congressman James Oberstar (D.Minn) indicated he would introduce legislation to fund bridge repairs and increase their inspections. According to Oberstar, a 5-cent increase in the gas tax would pay for a three year program that would generate some $8.5 billion a year. I repeat, we are talking about a five cent increase on the gas tax, in order to tackle an urgently needed and clearly dangerous infrastructure problem. A problem that should have long since been the focus of remedial government action.
President Bush's immediate and intemperate reaction to Oberstar's proposal was to dismiss it out of hand, admonishingly lecturing Oberstar and his Congressional colleagues, "Before we raise taxes, which could effect economic growth, I would urge the Congress to examine how they set priorities."
It begs the question, what are the president's priorities? Well consider this. In 2001 when the president took office the average price of conventional retail gasoline was $1.45 a gallon according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. By mid July 2007, the price was $3.05 per gallon, a difference of $1.60 a gallon or over 100% , or more to the point , by a factor of 32 times the five cent increment in gas tax proposed by Representative Oberstar to deal with a critically important issue. Here is a problem, tax foe or friend, that needs fixing. And yet President Bush is determined to continue on this course of obstruction if government taxes are the remedy. In contrast, over the past six years, he has done virtually nothing to arrest the egregious excesses of an oil industry empowered to tax each and everyone of us with runaway cartel manipulated prices.
The jump in gasoline prices is the direct result of the tripling of oil prices since Bush's inauguration in January 2001. Only two days ago William Ramsay, Deputy Director of the International Energy Agency urged Opec to increase production. He said oil prices in the region of $70 a barrel were too high and a threat to the world economy. So too did Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown exclaim his impatience with Opec manipulation while still Chancellor of the Exchequer, accusing Opec of doubling the price of oil within a twelve month period by withholding production from the marketplace. He went so far as to call the Saudi Ambassador to voice his displeasure. By contrast within the last six years our White House has done nothing meaningful to signal our displeasure if not disgust with our Saudi friends who are in effect the putative leaders of OPEC.
This in spite of the fact that we are the de facto guarantor of Saudi independence as clearly evidenced by the massive US fleet sailing the Arabian Gulf to protect Saudi shipping lanes, and if need be, Saudi Arabia itself. The US Arabian fleet is now at its greatest level of strength ever, and at a cost of about $100 million a day. That comes to some $35 billion a year to American taxpayers.
In this madhouse relationship, the President's initiatives are not limited to the shores of Arabia but extend to our shores as well. Congress has passed resolutions to nullify the sovereign immunity that Opec state companies enjoy in our courts, that will make them subject to laws of the land much as any other commercial enterprise. Yet President Bush, in support of the Saudis and in turn Opec, has made it be known that he would veto such a measure.
All this, and the administration's myriad tax breaks for big oil, its near giveaway of oil leases, its appointments to both the Interior and Energy Departments of oil flacks and oil hires, its support and protection of 'K' Street lobbyists, have all created a dramatic disequilibrium. Representative Oberstar is lectured by the President for asking for a five cent gas tax that would fund a program to rebuild our bridges. Yet where is the presidential hectoring when Exxon-Mobil cashes in $40 billions in annual profits lifted from a phony oil market which in and of itself has become a massive tax on the public weal.
The handling of this issue alone borders on the catastrophic. I don't know what they taught Mr. Bush at Harvard Business. But such levels of intransigence, tunnel vision and partisanship would have found a swift exit from the corner office in the real world.
Follow Raymond J. Learsy on Twitter: www.twitter.com/raymondLearsy