Why we still support the gas tax — even with the latest increase

The rise in the state’s gas tax continues to be a topic of conversation — which continues to be a surprise.

After all, fewer people are driving — so the state has to raise the tax to make up the money it’s required to contributed to the Transportation Trust Fund ($16 billion over eight years).

And that money — in theory — goes to support infrastructure projects, which is one of the most vital things the state needs to invest in.

Regular readers know we rarely call for any type of tax increase, but we have repeatedly defended those marked for infrastructure improvement. It’s something the state can no longer push down the road.

The 9.3-cent increase to the gas tax that will start Oct. 1 will raise the gas tax to just over 50 cents a gallon. We can live with that. Others aren’t so sure.

Over the weekend, state Sen. Steve Oroho (R-Sparta) called for the governor to suspend the increase — saying the governor has changed other statutory deadlines, so why not this one.

“It’s almost unbelievable for the governor to now suggest that preventing a gas tax increase when many families are in economic crisis is the one thing he can’t do by executive order,” Oroho said. “Considering his own executive actions kept people home and off the roads, artificially depressing gas consumption, drivers shouldn’t be penalized.”

Tony Russo, the head of the Commerce and Industry Association of New Jersey, said his group wants the Legislature to introduce an amendment to the law providing relief when the $2 billion annual threshold is not met.

Russo said it’s not just the pandemic. He expects more fuel-efficient cars and more working from home will make this a regular occurrence.

“While CIANJ supports the improvements and critical repairs to our infrastructure this tax pays for, we must also acknowledge the current economic crisis in New Jersey — businesses and residents cannot afford additional taxes,” Russo said. “Increasing any fees or taxes should be done through a deliberative process where needs are identified and prioritized, and a funding source is sought while not placing New Jersey at a disadvantage.”

We feel the gas tax does all of the above.

It’s a priority — and the main source of funding is from the people who will benefit most.

Then there’s this: The 9 cents is the equivalent to about a buck and a half for a full tank of gas. We’re good with that — as long as it’s going to much-needed projects involving our roads and bridges. If the money goes to something else, then we’d have an issue.

Transportation infrastructure projects are vital to our future. And bring plenty of good jobs with them. If an added tax is being paid by people who are driving every day, that only seems fair.

Murphy, during his COVID-19 briefing Monday, addressed the issue.

He said he couldn’t recall if he knew the gas tax was going to go up Friday — when he gave his budget address Tuesday. Whether you believe that or not, it doesn’t take away from his bigger point.

“It has nothing to do with the budget,” he said. “It’s not in my control.  I have literally nothing to do with it.”

He’s right. The increases are mandated by a law signed as part of an agreement between former Gov. Chris Christie and the Legislature in 2016 — a deal that came with a reduction in the state’s sales tax.

State law requires an adjustment if the existing gas tax rate does not meet its funding goals. Murphy said Monday he would be open to reexamining that system sometime in the future.

“Am I open-minded at some point down the road to reassessing how it’s calculated?” he asked, and then answered. “As long as we can keep the Transportation Trust Fund viable.”

That’s the only question worth asking in this debate.