Eliminate the Gas Tax, Increase the Sales Tax – a Good Idea?

1024px-Pumping_gas3Governor McDonnell has proposed a solution – or the beginning of a solution, at least – to the transportation funding crises in Virginia.  The most significant element is the elimination of the state gas tax, and its replacement with a 0.8% increase in state sales tax.  Both the Not Larry Sabato blog and the Bearing Drift blog summarize and offer some analysis of the plan, which I encourage you to read.

RIDE Solutions doesn’t come down on one side or the other, here – in general, we feel that anything that gets more money into transportation is a good thing (with the caveat that we believe the commonwealth’s transportation system should be run as efficiently as possible before we plow more dollars into new road-building or congestion management projects).

Here are some of my personal thoughts on some elements of the plan:

1) Eliminating the gas tax, increasing the sales tax.  One of the justifications for the gas tax is that it’s basically a user fee, so eliminating it could make the waters murkier in terms of connecting the public benefit with the public cost.  On the other hand, I’ve repeatedly made the argument that the gas tax falls far short of covering the costs of the transportation system, so getting rid of it might be the best way to stop having that argument – transportation then becomes a public benefit that everyone pays for.  This can also be of benefit to the cycling world, as I often hear the argument that since cyclists don’t pay gas taxes (of course, they do, since most cyclists are also drivers), they don’t have a right to the road.  Elimination of the gas tax would eliminate that argument.

A Facebook post I read suggested one downside is that the burden of a sales tax may fall more heavily on Virginia residents than out-of-state travelers.  This may very well be the case, and I’d like to see data, if it was available, that showed how many out of state drivers fueled in Virginia gas stations.  That said, as Bearing Drift points out, the diesel fuel tax is remaining, so one of the major out-of-state users of Virginia highways, trucking companies, will continue to contribute to our transportation fund.

A move to the sales tax as the primary source of funding would also offset the effect of improving mileage standards on upcoming generation of vehicles, something that has been a problem for some time.

2) Increasing registration fees as a dedicated source of transit funding.  I agree with Not Larry Sabato here that any dedicated source of transit funding is probably a good idea.  I’d prefer it as a dedicated percentage of the sales tax, but any place is a good start.

3) A new $100 yearly fee on alternative fuel vehicles.  Not sure how I feel about this one yet.  Not Larry Sabato makes the argument that this penalizes the cleanest-running cars, which is a good point.  On the other hand, hybrid, CNG and other vehicles haven’t contributed to transportation funding at the same pace as conventionally fueled vehicles for a number of years, and though they have a smaller cost in terms of pollution, they contribute equally to congestion costs, road maintenance costs, the land-use costs of parking, etc.  In the sense that this fee could be playing “catch up” in getting these vehicles to contribute their fair share, I don’t know that it’s a bad idea.  But as a permanent new fee, I’m not sure that it’s fair.  A fee based on vehicle weight might be more appropriate, but I’m not really sure about that, either.

There are a few other elements discussed in the other blogs that you might want to take a look at – these are just the items that I feel make sense to look at from a TDM perspective.

EDIT:  One thing I forgot to add – the benefit of the gas tax, and of raising the gas tax to the levels needed to fund transportation needs, is that it does serve as a disincentive to drive unnecessarily.  In that regard, high gas taxes encourage alternative modes (where they’re available – a lot of rural areas without good transit options are still left with long distance commutes to work and shopping).  That’s the upside of the user-fee element of the gas tax:  you can avoid paying it by driving less and not buying gas.  This has a beneficial effect on pollution, congestion, land-use, etc.

Is Raising the Gas Tax the Solution?

Yes and no.

There is a fairly complex proposal in the Virginia General assembly to raise the gas tax and offset that increase through other changes in taxes and fees.  The Bacon’s Rebellion blog does a good job of summarizing the proposal.  They also point out a fundamental flaw with it:

The underlying assumption is that there is nothing wrong with Virginia’s transportation policies that more money won’t fix.

I dispute that assumption. I maintain that transportation policy is fundamentally broken. And while, yes, we probably do need to spend more money on transportation to increase mobility and access, raising taxes without changing how that money is spent is a fool’s errand. No amount of tax increases will help Virginia build a transportation system for the 21st century if the money goes to the wrong projects.

I think this is right.  As far as it goes, I have no issue with raising the gas tax – it is the closest thing we have to funding our transportation system by those who use it most, and does a better job of collecting revenue from out-of-state drivers than other methods.  But, as is hinted in element of the gas-tax hike that would levy fees on electric and hybrid vehicles, it has a fundamental flaw that as vehicles become more efficient – an indisputable good – it actually reduces funding even as traffic and congestion increases.  Other proposals to get around this, such as the Vehicle Miles Traveled tax, are problematic in other ways.

In other words, raising the gas tax is fine, but it probably doesn’t address the core problem – as James Bacon points out, it might even exacerbate it if land use decisions, developer responsibility, and other issues aren’t addressed first.

From our perspective, transportation should first be addressed through maximizing the efficiency of the existing system whenever possible, through transportation demand management principles, intelligent transportation systems, or other methods.  Every dollar that is wisely invested in something other than new construction is a dollar that won’t bear the interest of future maintenance costs, and doesn’t eat up land that might be productive in ways other than road building.

After that comes better land use decisions.  Whether policies that encourage density and transit oriented development, to making developers take more responsibility over the transportation systems that feed the sprawl they create, to designing better streets and road systems that can more flexibly respond to changes in vehicle choice (for example, the dense neighborhoods in many counties that don’t connect well to commercial centers or basic services, that lack sidewalks, yet can look like any urban neighborhood), the connection between transportation and land use needs to be better understood and better implemented if spending on transportation is truly going to be an investment in the future rather than simply maintaining an outdated status quo.

My New Chance at Bike Commuting

When you’re used to a 10 minute commute home, even a small increase in congestion makes you feel like you’re stuck in something like this.

One of the reasons I have had for not doing more, regular bike commuting is that I pick my daughter up from my parents’ place each day, so my commute home is longer and would involve hauling a child behind me if I were to do it on a bicycle.  However, the dynamic has started to change recently.

My parents live out in Garden City, and the new Dollar General that has gone up at the corner of Riverland Rd. and Garden City Blvd. seems to have affected the traffic pattern along Riverland.  There used to be a gravel shoulder that was effectively a right-hand turn lane onto Garden City Blvd.  This shoulder has narrowed with the construction of the Dollar General, and now traffic has begun to back up significantly along Riverland Rd., sometimes extending as far back as Laurel St.

The commute home takes me from Downtown, along 9th to Riverland, and then to Garden City Blvd.  Because of the new traffic congestion along Riverland, I have found myself sitting idle through several cycles of the traffic light at the intersection of Riverland and 9th, and through several more until I get to Garden City Blvd., with the effect of adding another 10 to 15 minutes to my daily commute.

Now, there’s another way to Garden City – along Yellow Mountain Rd. from the Crystal Spring area, which is where I live.

So, I did the math and did a test run along Yellow Mountain last week to time the commute.  From downtown to Riverland in my minivan now takes about 20 minutes or so.  meanwhile, if I bike home it takes about 10 minutes, and the drive along Yellow Mountain to Garden City is just over 5.  So, if I bike commute home, switch out the bike for the minivan, and then drive to pick up my daughter, I’m now shaving 5 to 10 minutes off my commute home, and 2 miles a day off my commute distance, since the route long Riverland is slightly longer.  Since my daily commute is about 10 miles, this is a 20% reduction in my commute distance each day, with the added bonus of time saved and roughly 5 miles, or 240 calories, worth of bike commuting.

My work schedule should allow me to do this at least 2 or 3 days a week, sometimes more if my meeting requirements during the day allow.

The lesson here:  a small change in traffic congestion has justified a review of my commute.  If I can stick with this for 3 days a week, let’s say, for the next year, that’s going to save me about 300 miles off my annual mileage, I’ll burn about 37,000 calories, and I’ll reclaim roughly 13 hours of my time.  Not bad for just a little change.

You’re Not the Boss of Me

As one might imagine, I get into discussions of public funding for alternative transportation infrastructure quite a bit – online and offline, though the online conversations tend to be some of the most frustrating (and perversely amusing).  As the debate moves back and forth and I make my case for funneling dollars towards bike lanes, transit service, park-and-rides, or whatnot, I am amazed at how often and how quickly the opposing argument boils down to, “Well, you just want to control my life.”

Take, for example, a recent thread on Facebook, where River Laker (Roanoke’s Car Less Brit) shared this Roanoke Times article about a VDOT plan, currently unfunded, to spend $20 million adding travel and turning lanes to the Elm Avenue Bridge, Roanoke’s hotspot for congestion (as modest as that congestion is).  A few folks, myself included, commented that $20 million to alleviate congestion for a small number of drivers during rush hour on one tiny span of road might not be the wisest use of money, particularly when the same $20 million could complete the entire span of unfinished Greenway between Green Hill Park and Explore Park.  Yes, I understand that, in reality, government spending doesn’t work that way – the money is broken up into pots and can’t be transferred from project to project, but it’s the principle that’s the point here.

A proponent of VDOT’s plan (we’ll call him K.B.) stepped in to argue against the cyclists and others who were criticizing the proposal, and after engaging him in discussion it took only 7 posts before K.B. shot back, “What you’re really trying to do is force your way of life on me, admit it.”

This response amazes me on several levels.  First, it’s just a dumb argument (I’d like to be more diplomatic than that, but I just can’t):  not funding a road improvement does not equate to denying someone the ability to keep driving as they always have.  At worst, it reinforces the consequences of their choice  – choose drive alone everyday, deal with the traffic.  To be fair, the same can be applied to cyclists and bus riders – choose to ride a bicycle, accept that the trip is going to be more dangerous.  Not providing additional service does not equal taking away service.

Second, I don’t get how providing a bike lane for someone else to use forces the driver to change his behavior.  Now, TDM professionals like myself would love if this were actually true – if putting down a bike lane forced drivers to switch to bicycles (or to adding buses forced them to ride, or HOV lanes to carpool), then our jobs would be much easier.  We’d all be engineers instead of marketers.  Of course, that’s not how it works:  building out accommodations serves as one piece of a complex puzzle of infrastructure improvements, incentives, market pressures, and education to get people to use them.  Almost always, though, there is a built in audience – maybe small, maybe large – who would use the accommodation with little to no prodding.

More important is this:  TDM is about transportation choice – that is, we’re not against cars or driving alone, but we’re for using the right mode for the right trip and educating commuters about the benefits of doing so (significant dollar savings, environmental benefits, health benefits, and so forth).  In fact, surveys in Virginia have shown that commuters who choose to drive alone each day, or do so out of necessity, appreciate other commuters having the option to bike, walk, take the train or bus, etc., as it gets those cars off the road and allows the single-occupant-vehicle drivers to move along more efficiently.  Giving people the widest variety of choice helps the entire system move more efficiently.

In terms of where public money is spent, we take a view of investment equity; that is, public money should be spent in a way that benefits all users of all modes in some respect.  The idea that that spending money on bike lanes, greenways, and other accommodations now is a waste of tax dollars is a bit ridiculous given the number of cul-de-sacs, limited-access-highways and, yes, congestion mitigation projects that have been built over the last several generations.  If the measure of success is the number of people who use it, is a cul-de-sac really that much better of an investment?  Given the lopsided way we’ve spent transportation money the last few decades, we have a lot of catching up to do to reach some level of equity.

But let’s accept for a moment, just for the fun of it, this “you’re controlling my life” argument has some validity to it.  How, precisely, is the reverse not therefore true?  If adding a bike lane is controlling his life, isn’t adding additional driving lanes controlling mine?  So, even accepting that it’s got weight behind it the argument is pretty silly – the two cancel each other out, and we’re back to debating which is the better way to spend public money.

I’m not sure what causes drivers to retreat to this point – are they threatened?  Is it guilt?  Maybe they think they should be riding that bike to the store, but have rationalized not being able to do so because of the lack of a bike lane?  Whatever the case, it’s an unfortunate position that shuts down the important conversation we should be having about public investment in transportation infrastructure.