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