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.

A Lack of Imagination When it Comes to Energy

There seems to be an important element missing from many of our national debates:  Imagination.  Newt Gingrich hinted at it a few months ago in one of the Republican primary debates with his (admittedly tone-deaf) promise, “By the end of my second term we will have the first permanent base on the moon and it will be American.”  Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, in a spirited defense of NASA, explores the same theme in the following video entitled “We Stopped Dreaming:”


Nowhere is this lack more noticeable, I think, than in our discussions about energy:  how we produce it, its role in our economy and our lives, its role in keeping America competitive, and the trade-offs we’re willing to make to keep it affordable.  This is true for all energy sectors, whether we’re talking about coal-fired power plants or electric cars, wind turbines or gas refineries.  Time after time, when I enter a discussion about where we are vs. where we should be, there is a resistance to imagination, to considering  what could be.  This is particularly a shame, I think, because so much of America’s national spirit and mythmaking is based on the idea that we constantly challenge assumptions and limitations – that we innovate, and create, forge new markets and, ultimately, lead the world.  How much of this is precisely accurate is another story, but it’s indisputable this has been a significant part of our national self image since the Founding.

And yet, think about some of the objections you hear to any attempt to innovate our energy markets (if this is the kind of thing you are inclined to talk about):  Try to move away from coal…well, China is just going to buy it anyways, why bother?  Encourage massive shifts to electric vehicles…well, oil is fungible, other people will buy it, so why bother?  Build bike friendly cities…well, no one will ride a bike, why bother?

It’s not that there aren’t legitimate objections to some of these ideas, or that there are places or situations where their application simply isn’t feasible – it’s the lack of imaginative vision, the sense that, if this great thing can’t be applied here, then what can?  It’s as if we can’t even imagine a world powered by clean, homegrown energy, a country of walkable cities where we get to know our neighbors again, energy markets that free up American ingenuity and markets so that we can surge back into economic leadership rather than being shackled to foreign oil fields and dirty coal – that is getting more and more expensive to extract – even as our competitors invest in more diverse energy sources.

A generation ago, our parents and grandparents were told they would be driving flying cars through cities of skyscrapers while robot butlers served them meatloaf in a pill, and out of that vision came the world we now live in – more boring in some ways, more amazing in others.

What is the flying car of our future?  Something with marginally better gas mileage?  Wider roads that, hopefully, won’t take you on scenic tours of the blasted ruins of Appalachian coal fields?  An iterative remodel of the same SUV we’ve been driving for a decade?

We need to start imagining again.  Big.  Huge.  Ridiculous.  We need to imagine solar panels on every roof, cars that run on water, treadmill sidewalks, whatever it takes to get us excited about our cities and our future.  If we don’t imagine big, how are we going to accomplish anything other than mediocre?

Cars of the Future

This post by local blogger and bicycle enthusiast Chris Berry is a little old by now but deserves some attention.  Chris here is discussing changes in the automobile itself – a move to smaller, more efficient vehicles, rather than mode shift, but he does bring up a point that I don’t think is often enough considered:

We have also tended to purchase vehicles based more on our occasional needs than our actual daily driving habits. Seventy-seven percent of American commuters drive to work alone. Even though most of us do the majority of our driving without passengers, we select vehicles that allow us to pack up all of our earthly possessions for a once a year trip to Disney World. For most families, it would make far more sense to own at least one very small commuter vehicle, and to rent a larger car or van for those occasional long trips.

Here I am in complete agreement with Chris, particularly if a bicycle is included in the universe of “very small commuter vehicle[s],” or even a monthly transit pass.  The reason that RIDE Solutions concentrates our work on commuters, even though commuting trips are by far the smallest number of trips taken in a household, is that they are (for most people) the most regular trips, trips least influenced by whims, schedule changes, or special needs, and thus the easiest to replace with a transit, bike, or carpool trip (and we can step in with the Guaranteed Ride Home to cover the rare occurrences with emergencies do arise).

In a very general sense, most commuter trips result in a car being parked somewhere all day long.  So the car might as well not be there at all (if a bicycle or bus or carpool is an option) or be as small as possible if its not.

Chris also makes an interesting point about expanding the capacity of existing highways by narrowing vehicles rather than widening roads, a strategy far less energy intensive (both directly – the vehicles use less energy; and indirectly – no extra energy needed to widen the roads) option than our current strategy of more, more, more highways.

His post was written in 2008, as the high of the most recent spike in gas prices, but he seems to have anticipated the trend – there are more smaller cars out there, and even electric vehicles coming out of major auto producers, so the market does seem to have changed.  There’s also The Fiesta Movement, a Facebook group highlighting the benefits of the older, smaller Ford Fiesta.

What I’m curious about is if Americans will ever truly buy in to the idea of small cars – particularly the kind Chris describes where passengers sit in single file rather than two abreast.  Or are we more enamored with the technology of efficient engines, using hybrids and electric vehicles as clean-energy ways to move the same basic amount of bulk?

People Are Getting Smarter

RIDE Solutions was an exhibitor at the recent 10th Annual Green Living and Energy Expo.  Despite an unseasonably warm and gorgeous Saturday, and a soft economy that made people feel like they could put off than geothermal upgrade one more year, attendance was still good, if down a bit.  At the RIDE Solutions booth we had a steady series of great conversations.  Of course, at an event like this there’s a bit of preaching-to-the-choir going on, but folks were readily receptive to and supportive of transportation options as a way to cut back on energy use.

The title of this post stems from an anecdote shared by Ken Cronin, Director of General Services for Roanoke and heavily involved in the Clean and Green campaign.  Ken was there with a couple of the City’s new all-electric cars, each of which had stickers on the side promoting the fact that they were zero-emission vehicles.  “But wait,” an expo-goer challenged Ken, “That’s not true.  If they run on electricity that’s been generated from coal, then there are still emissions involved.”  Ken, rightly, conceded the point.

When the general public displays this kind of sophisticated understanding of the energy supply chain, I think it shows real promise for our ability to respond to the energy crisis.  So long as our main source of electricity continues to be derived from coal, concerns about climate change, mountaintop removal, air quality, and so forth might be lessened but eliminated when we concentrate solely on efficiency.  Sure, an electric car (or a hybrid) is a cleaner mile, but it’s always been our position that the only clean mile is the one not driven.

Welcome, Moona

There’s a third participant in the Car Less Brit experimentMoona Cancino, who is chronicling her adventures here.

Like Chris Howell before her, she was inspired (or perhaps cajoled) by the Car Less Brit to join the slowly swelling ranks of those abandoning their cars (or at least leaving them behind as much as possible) and taking advantage of cleaner, cheaper, friendlier transportation options.  Though the Experiment was never intended to be a bicycle-specific phenomenon (River has made some efforts to highlight the other modes available in Roanoke), it has, for reasons I intend on exploring at a later date, largely focused on the bicycle.  I was glad, therefore, to see the following comment in Moona’s second blog entry:

I have just as many adventures walking as I do biking.  So I would simply like it to be known that walking is my first love.  It is much simplier than riding a bike.  I never have to fix a flat, true my tires, or grease the chain.  I can go as I am.  Really you can, I’ve meet a few naked walkers on my travels!  Yes, I may write about riding my bike in Roanoke, but Roanoke has embraced me in all different modes of transportation.  Remember this experiment is not simply about riding your bike and being crazy.

Right on.

Good luck to the Car Less Brit and the Car Less Moms.  We’ll be watching!