Gas tax: It will stop regulations and wars
A week after reports that SUV – but not small car– sales had rebounded came the word that GM and Chrysler are utilizing tax dollars to fight the latest efforts to increase Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards.
Claiming that a vehicle could cost $6,435 more if new proposals are enacted, automakers worry about losing the single area where American manufacturers dominate: car bodies on truck chassis. Environmental groups, of course, are attacking automakers for the millions spent lobbying against higher fuel efficiency, leaving lawmakers again caught between allegedly creating American jobs and long-term environmental and societal good.
Yet our history is clear: CAFÉ standards have been a dismal failure.
Not only do Americans drive more once we purchase higher mileage cars, governmental requirements for more efficiency continually squeeze American automakers and push sales to foreign car makers who primarily compete in markets where high gasoline taxes produce overall consumer demand for efficiency.
It’s time the U.S. considers the economic “first best” solution and actually levy reasonable gasoline and diesel “user fees” on consumers. Italy, after all, with the highest gasoline taxes in the world– and no CAFÉ standards– has the highest-mileage vehicle fleet, as well as much more reasonable mass transit. Japan’s 123-million “test market” for fuel efficiency is propelled by gasoline taxes five times the U.S. rate.
Universally, countries which rationally tax auto fuel have better mass transit, more bicycle and pedestrian transportation, higher mileage car fleets, and less obese citizens. Even Australia, which has higher per capita car ownership and even more wide open spaces than America, taxes gasoline and diesel enough for citizens to consider options for most of their potential car trips.
Here, our governor is promoting taking sales tax revenue from schools and social services in order to make driving easier, and our supposedly “green” president stimulated highway repair and construction at a rate four times what he stimulated alternative transportation while his Cash4Clunkers program increased fuel efficiency less than a mile per gallon.
It’s time America and Virginia face the inconvenient facts. The largest economic emitter of greenhouse gases– and fastest growing– is American transportation, where we produce 45 percent of the world’s total automotive C02. In the largest single factor in our trade deficit, we send $613,000 per minute overseas to import oil and much of our foreign policy is driven by the need to protect oil importation. Individually, we use double the carbon the average European and six times Chinese consumption. During the lifetime of CAFÉ, American vehicle miles driven has increased four times population growth while we’ve subsidized highways at an annual rate of $145.3 billion, almost four times what we’ve spent on mass transit.
For every mile we drive, according to the Victoria Transportation Institute, we create 54 cents in costs to our society and economy. We drive some 2.9 trillion miles annually.
Yet Republican and Democratic local, state and federal administrations keep making driving “easier” under the political canard of countering congestion. However, the counterintuitive shocker is that when we build new highway lanes, in a very short time period we make congestion worse.
The phenomenon is called “induced traffic,” and most transportation engineers recognize that 90 percent of new urban freeways are overwhelmed within five years while the “relieved “roads are also carrying more traffic. One study of 70 urban areas across 15 years concluded:
"Metro areas that invested heavily in road capacity expansion fared no better in easing congestion than metro areas that did not. Trends in congestion show that areas that exhibited greater growth in lane capacity spent roughly $22 billion more on road construction than those that didn't, yet ended up with slightly higher congestion costs per person, wasted fuel, and travel delay.”
Build a new road, in short, and you beget more traffic while increasing the other issues which driving creates, from obesity to pollution to noise to foreign policy to decimated public budgets.
The Commission on the Future of Transportation in Virginia indeed noted 13 years ago that “it's a futile exercise to attempt to build your way out of congestion problems by adding more highways."
Yet, we keep trying.
The Catch 22 is that gasoline costs as little in real terms as it did decades ago when the United States actually produced most of the oil we used. Today, rational auto fuel user fees would insure auto makers build efficiency without the need for ineffective governmental regulators. A rational gas tax would revolutionize land-use planning, promote local economies, decrease congestion and greenhouse emissions and create demand for better alternative transportation modes. Electric car sales wouldn’t need to be subsidized to the tune of $7,500 per purchase.
Yet– even after two wars in Middle Eastern oil fields and the worst offshore oil spill in history– governmentally, both America and Virginia still act as if there’s an unlimited, easy-to-get-to oil supply which costs our society little.
A former journalism teacher at Virginia Union University, Randy Salzman is the transportation researcher who, back in April (before BP's blunder), penned the prescient essay predicting a massive underwater oil platform leak.