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.