Road to ruin: Cutting gas tax a disastrous plan

The first rule of holes is when you find yourself in one, quit digging.

Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell’s response to flagging revenues for transportation, however, is to grab a jack hammer. His proposal to eliminate Virginia’s gasoline tax, as any economist would explain, will lead to more driving, which will then require more highways and more highway repairs while the general fund– schools, economic development, and health, safety– will all suffer. The governor wants all Virginians, even non-drivers, to pay more sales tax on food and clothing to allegedly make up for the loss of 17.5 cents per gallon.

If Virginia does indeed remove our meager gasoline tax, economic history illustrates we will worsen congestion, increase the nation’s oil importation tab and compel America to keep expensive military bases near foreign oil fields. Besides supercharging the oil world’s desire to drill above the Arctic Circle and further strip-mine Canadian forests and potentially destroy our nation’s largest underground aquifer with devastating spills, the more cars cajoled onto our highways will lead to a “demand” to build more with money we don’t have.

Do politicians today pander so much to we self-involved driving voters that the Commonwealth is willing to impair practically every other facet of existence? Has rationality completely left our political world?

After promising $244 million in future federal gasoline tax dollars returned to Virginia for a highway through greater Charlottesville, which few locals want, our governor has pitched several million for a toll road paralleling an under-utilized major highway in Southwestern Virginia and now wants to create more congestion by saving every single Virginia driver a few cents.

After older analysis put the externality costs (societal costs) of driving at 29 cents per mile, a 2010 study by the Victoria Transportation Policy Institute, an independent Canadian research organization, calculated that American society pays 54 cents for every mile driven today. Most of these costs, unfortunately, simply don’t register with us drivers. For example, few taxpayers recognize that children who grow up near highways are more susceptible to autism and asthma, and almost no one realizes that the United States is putting some $19.6 million a day into keeping carrier groups around the Persian Gulf to ensure the Iranians don’t close the Strait of Hormuz and pressure world oil supplies. Most oil flow through the Strait, however, doesn’t come to the U.S. It ends up in our primary economic competitor, China.

In 2006, Milton Copulos of the National Defense Council Foundation analyzed gasoline’s externalities, excluding wars in oil fields or global warming and determined that we should be paying $10.06 per gallon in taxes, principally for lost economic opportunity and oil-related defense costs. If we didn’t seriously undercharge for transportation, Copulus pointed out that local manufacturers, local farmers and local artisans could compete with Chinese and other long-distance imports.

While driving voters love to complain about “high” gasoline prices, against income, Virginians are paying about a dime more per gallon of gasoline than our great, great grandparents in the 1920s.

America, indeed, has the second lowest average gasoline prices in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Only major oil exporter Mexico has lower gasoline prices than the United States. Canada, which uses its oil surplus to export to the U.S., has higher gasoline prices. And higher taxes.

Rather than eliminate gas taxes, the Bowles-Simpson commission, as well as any economist who studies transportation, specifically seeks higher auto fuel taxes to tackle the cost of repairing existing roads and addressing our national, never-ending, debt crisis.  Even former Republican directors of the Environmental Protection Agency suggest that a rational gas tax hike is appropriate.

Meanwhile, almost daily there’s another indication that human use of carbon is stressing our planet. Last year was the hottest on record in the U.S. while overwhelming numbers of extreme weather events hit across every continent. The Australians have had to add pink and purple to their weather maps because temperatures have risen beyond the red category. 

It’s almost as if our governor believes Virginia driving somehow doesn’t affect greenhouse emissions, pollution, congestion, health or foreign policy and believes that buyers of food and clothing should subsidize more driving.

In wanting to eliminate state gasoline taxes, he’s willing to dig us ever deeper, ever faster into an already gaping hole.

~
A former journalism teacher at Virginia Union University, Randy Salzman is a Charlottesville-based transportation researcher.

Read more on: gas tax

11 comments

1) the majority of oil from the middle east is used for more plastics than gasoline, so no matter how much we stopped driving it wouldn't change the need to protect the straits of hormuz

2) Higher gas taxes affect the poor among us dramatically. If someone in buckingham county needs to drive to lowes in charlottesville to fix the toilet in their trailer (cause they can't afford a plumber) than the gas alone for the 60 mile round trip could be 15 bucks, or an hour and a halfs pay, but for the overpriced TAXPAYER SUBSIDIZED university teacher that can afford to live 5 miles from lowes that cost drops to 2 dollars worth of gas or about 3 minutes worth of labor.

3) All the oil in the ground will be consumed until its gone, the only question is will americans get to enjoy its benifits or will the chinese military get it for their personal use?

4) The suggestion that we double the price of fuel so that china can't sell us things cheaper and therefore helps the farmers and manufaturers here become more prosperous has no basis in reality. If we doubled the price of imports it would double the price for consumers and we would have massive inflation that would once again shut out the poorest amongst us. When prices doubled then the farmers cost of living would double and he would be in the same boat. His costs to get to market would double too. Nothin would change but the weather and the number of zeros on a check.

5) I think a better idea would be to keep the gasoline tax but to give a car tax rebate to people below a certain income level in rural areas to offset the tax that hurts them dramatically. It would be easy to do and no where to commit fraud.

As for your belief that lowering the price of fuel will cause traffic jams that is a chicken and egg scenario. The reason we have traffic congestion is poor planning and fights to keep highways FROM being built instead of actually getting it done. If we committed more money to build the highways then the development would tap into them instead of the highways having to be gerrymandered around development.

Face it, all of the oil will be milked till this planet is empty. There is no stopping it. If we don't want it then someone else will be happy to use it. Perhaps pakistan can use it in their tanks and jets along with iran and china they can have a grand ole time wreaking havoc instead of us using it for heat, firetrucks and ambulances.

Yeah, we really need to encourage more gas use...and lord knows the state doesn't need the money. Teabagger scum...

Angel Eyes.... typical liberal... can't refute an argument so you resort to calling me scum.

Good for you. Its nice to see someone working up to their optimum potential.

Maybe the gas tax could be used for funding public transportation.

Bill, you're right that the gas tax is somewhat regressive, but the sales tax is much worse. The poor can get by without owning a car, which is the case for over 5,000 households in our region. But they cannot live without buying food. Moderate income folks can scale back their driving and share one car as a family to make ends meet. But they cannot get around a sales tax increase that touches everything they need on a daily basis.

Hey, BM, my comment had nothing at all to do with you; I didn't even read your post. The comment was directed at the governor...

"...the gas tax is somewhat regressive, but the sales tax is much worse."

Exactly. Not only that, but they can generally choose to buy a more fuel-efficient vehicle, which is a positive benefit as it means we'll have more oil to heat our houses until we drill every last drop.

McD's idea really looks like the continuation of Richomd's efforts to force the buck-paying onto the backs of counties and cities, rather than have VDOT pick up the tab. Just like with education, police, and firefighters.

"The governor wants all Virginians, even non-drivers, to pay more sales tax on food and clothing to allegedly make up for the loss of 17.5 cents per gallon."

I can't see saving an average of $3.50 per tank per car as creating excessive driving patterns. Maybe 3.00 of that saving will be spent in the store generating 17.7 cents for the state or possibly someone will buy 3 lotto tickets generating even more money for the state.

You also have to take into account a 17 cents difference on our borders will draw vehicles in for the savings and possibly buy a fifth, some smokes, lotto, or anything.

What about the working poor without a vehicle and the tax hike? If you spend 10000 a yr (high figure) and everything is taxed at 5 and then you have to pay 5.9. That is 90 dollars more a yr.

As the hippies like to spout off when trying to justify useless environmental taxes. "That is only 2 cups of coffee a month!!!"

Will it work? No idea. Should we try it for a while with certain limits (wishful thinking)?
I think so.

What is the point of repealing the gas tax? Doesn't the government need more money?

money trail sniffer.... even people from out of state use the roads and should help pay for them trough taxation but why should the STATE pay for local firefighters, police, and teachers? Why shouldn't we pay their salaries? The state already helps out with the capital budgets for the buildings and such? If a county is destitute that is a different story, but if we can afford free housing for homeless drunks we either need to pay our teachers or redo our priorities.

I have a novel idea, have state go back to building utuilitarian roads and bridges and let the hipsters donate money for fancy landscaping. Why should we spend 9 million on a Belmont bridge when 3 million would work just fine? Why do we feel "entitled" to blow money like that? If we didn't waste it on frills we could fix every bridge in the county AND pay the teachers without raising either tax.

If all governments (local federal and state) were not allowed to borrow money except for major amortised construction and actually charged us for what we spent there would be a lot less people "demanding" services or allowing officials to waste money.

Its real easy to spend other peoples money, not so much when its yours.