Gas Tax is Still the Best

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When we go on and on about using the gas tax more as a funding source, a common refrain is that gasoline usage is on the decline anyway. Fear of raising the gas tax has encouraged those hungry for road funding to push a Vehicle Miles Traveled tax instead.

I really don’t understand the problem a VMT tax solves that wouldn’t also solved by simply raising the gas tax. It’s true that gasoline tax increases are unpopular, but that’s because it makes driving more expensive, not due to the specifics of the funding mechanism. Meanwhile, VMT taxes require a whole new collection bureaucracy that envisions tracking everyone’s movements. I am by no means a privacy absolutist, but that seems to be a more laborious path to funding, not an easier one.

Moreover, we often hear that a carbon tax is the best way to mitigate our impact on the climate, but is unfortunately not viable at this time. Here in Washington, we’re fortunate in that gasoline is about 25% of our total emissions, meaning that the lowly gas tax is one of the best substitutes, and so viable that it’s already in place. If gasoline usage declines, that’s a great thing and a reason to keep jacking up the tax. If it essentially disappears, that would be a great problem to have.

Finally, there’s no real reason that steep gas tax increases must be spent on environmentally problematic highways. Alex Broner found $70m per year in Seattle alone; I found $165m per year statewide in Federal money that could be shifted to transit. Best of all, simply repealing the sales tax exemption for gasoline would have produced $500m a year to the state and $156m to local governments in 2008.

All told that’s close to a billion dollars a year, in a non-exhaustive list, in ways to tax pollution and use the revenue for less environmentally destructive purposes. Now obviously I’d be thrilled if that were all used to preserve and improve our transit service. But even if that were used to reduce other taxes, especially sales and payroll taxes, it would be good for both the environment and economy. I’m gratified to see that gas tax is at the center of most proposals to raise transportation revenue this session, even if many of the spending proposals are not ones I’d support.

About Martin H. Duke

Martin joined the blog in Fall 2007 and became Editor-in-Chief in 2009. He is originally from suburban DC, but has lived in the Greater Seattle area since 1997. He resides with his family in Columbia City and works as a software engineer in Lower Queen Anne.




Comments

  1. I never understood why the gas tax was a per gallon tax. It should be a percentage tax so that road construction (often tied with the cost of oil) would have sufficient funding and we would not have to fight each time to raise the per gallon tax.

    • Agreed. A percentage per gallon would be much better as it would increase every time gas prices go up, thereby limiting the ability to just raise the price to overcome the tax. Plus 1.299% tax per gallon (or whatever it is)looks a lot better than %0.05 cents or 10 cents, etc.

    • It’s per gallon because that’s the way gas pumps are set up. With today’s electronically metered pumps a percentage of total sale wouldn’t be that hard to implement but with the old mechanical pumps all you could do was set a price per gallon. Nobody wants to try and calculate how much to pump so that after tax is added it comes out to $5. One negative effect is that it would accentuate price spikes. You’d also have to weigh the risk of price declines. The consumption in gallons is much more predictable than the total amount spent. Indexing the tax per gallon to inflation would be a better solution. As long as it’s revenue neutral when introduced nobody has to say they voted to raise taxes.

      • Southeasterner says:

        Dead on.

        Bond financing capacity would be signficantly reduced using a percentage based fuel tax given the volatility in oil prices. You could end up defaulting a state if you based financing on taxes related to $80/barrel crude and prices plumeted to $40/barrel (which has been known to happen).

        In terms of technology many states/countries already incorporate percentage and fixed fuel taxes, granted for different financial applications.

      • And also because inflation wasn’t a big deal before 1972, so they didn’t foresee that a fixed rate would diverge so far from a percentage rate. But it’s harder to change an existing law than to just keep it as-is, especially if it involves raising taxes. It’s the same issue with the federal highway fund. (And the Alternative Minimum Tax, although that was just repealed.)

      • The solution is to charge the tax European style, which means the tax is part of the price rather than added to it. I have never understood why American sales taxes are added to the price of an item rather than being incorporated into it….

      • Stephen F says:

        What I have never understood is why the gas tax does not increase at least at the rate of inflation.

      • Nathanael says:

        John: It’s a way for businesses to convince consumers to complain about “taxes”. In Europe, it’s understood that taxes are the business’s problem.

      • VATs are taxing a different thing. Sales tax is a surcharge on the purchase price. VAT is a charge on how much companies add “value” to their inputs. There has been talk in DC about about a national VAT, but it has never gone anywhere so far.

    • As Bernie mentioned, one common reason that I’ve read is that a flat tax helps reduce price fluctuations, whereas a percentage tax exacerbates it. Are price fluctuations a problem? I dunno.

      • Matt the Engineer says:

        There are, of course, compromises between the two.

        1. Base cents/gal tax on the average fuel price of the previous year.
        2. Put a floor on a percentage tax.

      • My vote is for an inflation-adjusted price per gallon. (Matt’s strategy #1 is one possibility.)

        For me, it’s not about the revenue. If the point of the tax is to internalize the cost of pollution, then you want to tax the unit of pollution (namely gallons). Burning a gallon of gas does the same amount of damage, regardless of how much it cost.

      • How about instead of inflation adjusted it becomes income adjusted? To be specific, the tax per gallon is tied directly to the State minimum wage. Neither indexes very often but might more frequently if joined at the hip.

  2. It is true that a per mile tax is the fairest method of raising money for transportation infrastructure, the more you use the roads the more you should pay, but A VMT is not the solution, it is too difficult to track and enforce. I expect that the just imposed fee on electric vehicles (starting out at $100/year) will be the preferred alternate method of road taxes. Gas taxes should remain, of course, since fossil fuel vehicles aren’t going away, and we should impose a similar tax structure on natural gas vehicles starting right now. I know people will scream that alternative fuel vehicles should be exempt, but bridges, roads, and tunnels need to be paid for and maintained. Hmmm….what about a tire tax?

    I thought our current gasoline price includes a sales tax? Am I wrong?

    • Why would a VMT be too hard to enforce? Most cars already have to go in every year or two for emissions testing. Just add an odometer reading to this test and have the tax added to the vehicle registration fee.

      • ‘Most cars’? Are you sure about that? Only cars registered in certain urban areas, and below a certain age are tested.

        However, most cars are re-registered each year. Just ask what the mileage is at that time. It’s already illegal to lie about your odometer reading when transferring you car; extend that law to the reading at registration time.

        Some people argue that you shouldn’t be taxed for the time you drive in another state, but I don’t see why that should be the case.

      • Do you really want the government keeping track of the number of miles you drive every year? I don’t.

        A gas tax is a more than fair enough approximation of roadway impact for the great majority of users, and doesn’t have the privacy issues inherent in a VMT.

      • I’m not concerned about the gubmint knowing how far I drive. I would have some privacy concerns if they wanted to know where I drive. For that reason, I’m opposed to any GPS-based VMT tax. AFAICT, a GPS-based solution or something similar would be needed to exclude out-of-state milage.

      • In Oregon they decided not to use odometer readings in their pilot program because they can only tax you on miles driven _in Oregon_. There’s no way to tell how many of those odometer miles were in Portland and how many were in Vancouver.

      • David, I don’t want the government keeping track of exactly when and where I travel, so I am strongly opposed to any VMT that requires installing a GPS tracking device in my car. Along similar lines, I also don’t agree with electronic tolling systems, traffic cameras, or even ORCA cards that keep track of when and where people travel unless any personally identifying data is removed from all related databases after a short period of time (say a month) — just long enough to allow people to verify that they’re billed properly.

        I also support privacy protection laws that prohibit any data that is collected from these sources from being used in unrelated civil or criminal investigations. If I drive through an intersection at a particular time, it’s one thing to send me a ticket for running a red light and another thing entirely to use that information to decide to question me for a bank robbery that happened nearby a few minutes before.

        That said, I could totally live with a VMT if it were implemented via a simple odometer reading rather than GPS tracking. I don’t consider the aggregate number of miles I drive in a year to be something that has a real chance of being used to my detriment if it were to become public. It’s certainly something I care less about keeping private than the financial info that’s sent to the IRS every year.

      • Tim, I’m curious why you say Oregon could only charge the VMT for in-state miles. Most states that have an income tax charge their residents a tax that is based on all income (with a credit for tax paid to other states on out-of-state income). Why would this be any different from a constitutional perspective?

        If living in a state can make you liable for that state’s income tax even if all of your income comes from out-of-state, I don’t see why registering your car in a state shouldn’t be able to make you liable for that state’s VMT even if all of your driving occurs in another state.

      • One big advantage of a tax per gallon instead of a tax per mile is that a VMT tax does nothing to encourage the use of more fuel efficient cars. Although I guess you could index the price per mile based on weight it just seems like a really complicated way to accomplish what we do now for cheap. Now, adding tolls is a method I can support because it can target high cost sections of roadway and serve as a TDM tool which if implemented correctly is a huge savings over trying to increase peak demand through building more capacity.

      • If the government wants to know where you drive, they can already find out — they just tail you. Like it or not, when you travel in public, your travel is public knowledge.

        To me, the entire point of a VMT is the ability to charge a different rate when you drive on expensive/congested infrastructure or at busy times. (And, further, the ability for individual regions to have a local option tax for driving there.) So a VMT without a GPS option seems worse than useless.

        If I were in charge, I would allow drivers to choose between odometer readings and GPS tracking. If you pick odometer, you pay the highest possible cost for any place and any time of day, based on where your car is registered. If you pick GPS, you pay based on where you actually drive. That gives people a “private” option, but also encourages people to save money by using the GPS.

      • I think you all are overestimating the amount which people actually care about privacy. Look at how many people use Foursquare, to broadcast every place they go to the entire world. Do you think those people would care about having a GPS in their car which saved them money?

        I do think there should be an odometer option, to let people have more privacy (at the expense of not getting discounts for driving at off-peak times). But I can’t imagine more than 10% of drivers taking advantage of it.

      • If I drive through an intersection at a particular time, it’s one thing to send me a ticket for running a red light and another thing entirely to use that information to decide to question me for a bank robbery

        What’s your beef with questioning someone based on video police obtain from a traffic camera vs information they might obtain from asking eye witnesses? There is no right to privacy when driving on a public road.

      • @Eric: when I said “can only charge” I meant to say “did only charge”. I do not know the basis for that decision.

      • Aleks, there’s a big difference between the government tailing a few persons of particular interest and the government collecting data on every movement by every citizen with a car. The first is a natural exercise of police power. The second is totalitarian.

        I don’t understand why we’re so ready to tear up all privacy interests and institute a huge new bureaucracy to collect a VMT when a gas tax is such a good proxy for it and is so easy to collect.

      • Isn’t accuracy a problem with GPS devices? I’m hardly an expert on this, but I’ve tried using my phone’s GPS to track my runs and bike rides and had some really lousy results.

      • I don’t understand why we’re so ready to tear up all privacy interests and institute a huge new bureaucracy to collect a VMT when a gas tax is such a good proxy for it and is so easy to collect.

        I strongly disagree that a gas tax is a good proxy for a VMT. The gas tax is the same whether you’re driving on a congested freeway or a country road; whether you’re driving at rush hour or at midnight; whether you’re driving a huge hybrid SUV, or a tiny but inefficient subcompact.

        I’m with Bernie. There is no right or expectation of privacy when driving on a public road.

      • I strongly disagree that a gas tax is a good proxy for a VMT. The gas tax is the same whether you’re driving on a congested freeway or a country road; whether you’re driving at rush hour or at midnight; whether you’re driving a huge hybrid SUV, or a tiny but inefficient subcompact.

        There are better ways to address all of those issues than a totalitarian VMT.

        If congestion along a corridor is a problem, toll it; if it’s worse at peak hours, toll peak travel higher. If congestion is a problem in a certain area, raise parking rates and parking taxes there. If we really have to, we can impose a gated congestion pricing area, although I think Seattle’s much too small and uncrowded to need that yet. If big cars get efficient to avoid a gas tax, that’s a good thing!

        I’m sorry, but I do not want a regime where the government can monitor every movement I make, and, for that matter, every little driving mistake I make. When was the last time you rolled through a stop sign at 5 mph or went 5 mph over the speed limit? Now imagine the government knew about it, each time.

      • One potential problem is that odometers often break on older cars; the one in my Mercedes has been stuck at 297,192 miles for months now.

        Also, while odometers are designed to be difficult to roll back, they’re fairly trivial to disable. Someone could also easily defraud the system just by disconnecting their car’s speedometer cable or vehicle speed sensor connection so miles aren’t logged; even fitting bigger tires would result in paying less tax per mile driven. On some cars I’ve owned just taping down the trip odometer reset button would be enough to stop miles from accumulating.

      • You say that implementing a VMT would be logistically difficult. If Seattle wanted to toll every arterial individually, do you think that would be logistically easier? I don’t.

        Raising parking rates/taxes doesn’t help for streets where much of the congestion is people passing through. Think about streets like Denny, or 15th Ave W, or even most of downtown.

        I don’t know how you can say that Seattle is too small and uncrowded to need congestion management. Denny is a parking lot for most of the day. Dozens of our bus routes travel at an average speed of about 5 mph, because of congestion. This is the whole problem with cars — they take up so much space that a city will have traffic problems well before it’s dense enough for ubiquitous and frequent transit to be cost-effective. Congestion management will save time (and money!) for all users of our roadways.

        When was the last time I rolled through a stop sign at 5 mph? Never. When was the last time I went 5 mph over the speed limit? Never. I know it’s hard for many drivers to understand, but I actually believe in following the law, even when it’s difficult or annoying. I think the contempt that most drivers have for the law (and for the government) is a travesty, and I strongly and enthusiastically support much stronger enforcement of traffic law.

      • Aleks, a healthy city will have a certain level of congestion; it’s just a fact of life. The congestion itself is the force that pushes the city toward densification, better transit, and development of the core rather than the periphery. You can’t, and don’t want to, manage it completely away. All you want to do is fix the worst bottlenecks like Denny, and build ways for transit to move faster than cars do, so that congestion becomes less important to more people.

        Area-based congestion pricing imposes significant administrative costs on the government and significant transaction costs on users, and should only be imposed where an entire area of significant size is suffering or nearly suffering from total gridlock on normal days. That is the case in London, Hong Kong, and Manhattan. It’s not true here and wouldn’t be until we at least doubled density in the entire core.

        When was the last time I rolled through a stop sign at 5 mph? Never. When was the last time I went 5 mph over the speed limit? Never.

        Frankly, I don’t believe you. It is extremely difficult to drive exactly to rule, even for a professional driver. And even if you didn’t roll through any stop signs (even at 1 mph), are you really claiming you never…

        - Stopped with your car’s nose 1 foot over a stop line (or crosswalk boundary, if no stop line)?
        - Signaled a lane change or turn less than precisely 100 feet in advance?
        - Momentarily violated your lane boundary without a signal 100 feet in advance?
        - Turned into a lane other than the closest one?
        - Drove with a burned-out bulb in your car, even to go buy a new bulb?

        I guarantee you that if I rode in your car for five miles of city driving I could pick out at least ten traffic violations. And that’s not a claim that you’re a bad driver, at all. Now imagine if the government had the technology to ticket you for every last one of them.

        I strongly and enthusiastically support much stronger enforcement of traffic law.

        Even more than other laws governing conduct, traffic laws are hyper-precise and leave no room for error. Enforce them as strictly as the government could do with universal GPS constantly reporting data on every car, and you’ve just ensured that pretty much every driver will have his or her license revoked within a few days.

      • I understand the point you’re making about congestion, but I’m not sure I agree. I’m sure you’ve read the studies that Donald Shoup has cited, about how 30% of cars on a street at any given time are looking for parking. It’s only recently that we’ve had the technology to use dynamic pricing as a way of ensuring the appropriate availability of parking.

        Similarly, if we’re able to use technology to allow people to pay for travel with money rather than time, I don’t see why we wouldn’t want to. We’ll still see the same demand for transit and densification — just like people don’t want to wait in traffic today, they won’t want to pay the tolls/taxes that we have tomorrow. The difference is that waiting in traffic is a deadweight loss, while the revenue from tolls and taxes can be used to make the city better. I don’t see why traffic needs to be as bad as it is in Manhattan before we can start improving.

        I understand the point you’re making about traffic laws. Again, I make two claims. First, speeding is particularly relevant for safety. According to the Washington Traffic Safety Commision, speeding accounts for more than a third of all deadly crashes in WA state..

        And second, I think that “breaking the law” is rarely the right answer to any problem. If traffic laws are too strict, then they should be made less so. For example, I would be fine with passing a law that allowed drivers to make a certain number of minor offenses per (hour, day, week, month) without any penalty. If you have a burned-out bulb, it should be legal to drive to the store to buy a new one. Etc.

        In contrast, in today’s system, you might drive one day a month, but you accidentally forget to signal when a cop is behind you. Meanwhile, someone else routinely drives at 20 mph over the speed limit, but never gets caught.

        To me, inconsistent policing and overly-strict laws are two wrongs, and their sum does not make a right.

      • Nathanael says:

        An odometer tax would be OK. I am also strongly opposed to anything which involves the government tracking my car with GPS.

        (And by the way, I think it should be possible to buy train tickets anonymously.)

      • Yesterday, I had a large number of errands to run. I did them by car, and the trip took me from my Lake City home to the University District, Southeast Seattle, West Seattle, and downtown. (The trip would have been surprisingly easy on transit if only the 522 and 50 ran with reasonable frequency. As it was, I would have had many 20- and 25-minute waits had I tried. This was a case tailor-made for frequency advocates.)

        As an experiment, since I wasn’t in a particular hurry, I carefully attempted to drive to rule, as Aleks claims to. Some observations:

        - It is flat-out impossible to safely observe the law governing following too closely (RCW 46.61.145) at all times when in heavy traffic. Most courts interpret this law as requiring several car lengths. Cars will cut in front to the degree that you end up driving at a slower than safe speed if you try to compensate for every one.

        - Signaling one hundred feet before the turn as required by RCW 46.61.305 works well on highways and regional or principal arterials, but often results in ambiguous signaling on minor and collector arterials and residential streets, because there will be driveways, alleys, or even cross streets that you encounter before the street where you are actually trying to turn.

        - The speed limits on residential streets (25 mph) and collector and minor arterials (30 mph) are generally reasonable and do not impede driving in the flow of traffic. Elsewhere, driving at exactly the speed limit usually resulted in cars piling up behind me, and following me too closely. Speed limits that felt actively unsafe to follow, because of other drivers’ behavior, included the following:

        - 30 mph on Sand Point Way NE between NE 123 St and NE 95 St
        - 30 mph on Montlake Boulevard NE between 25 Ave NE and NE Pacific Pl
        - 35 mph on Swift Ave S between S Graham St and S Myrtle St.
        **- 35 mph on Spokane Street Viaduct, both directions. Cars honked at me and passed me very close, driving angrily.
        - 35 mph on Lake City Way NE between 20th Ave NE and NE Northgate Way.

        - The trip took me probably 15-20 minutes longer, total, than it would have had I driven normally. This isn’t a huge amount of time in the scale of the trip, but it’s enough to make a difference.

      • David, isn’t Montlake Blvd. signed for 35mph in that stretch? In any case, I drive that fast there and people are passing me.

      • Entirely possible that I missed a sign, as I haven’t driven that stretch often for years, and when I used to, it was always in the PM peak when it’s jammed anyway. If it is 35, that would partially explain why it felt unsafe at 30, but I would have still been slower than the flow of traffic had I driven 35.

    • Southeasterner says:

      I don’t quite understand the validity of people’s concerns with privacy when they are driving on public roads.

      I think the government has a clear responsibility to track vehicle movements to help in accident mitigation, understanding drivers behavior and congestion alleviation. There are also numerous advantages in terms of deterring vehicle theft and reducing the need for high speed pursuits.

      Driving is a privilege not a right, GPS should be mandated on every car in the U.S.

      • So do you want the government to mail you a speeding ticket every time you drive 65 in a 60 zone?

        There is a qualitative difference between using government manpower to observe citizens and imposing tracking systems that retain data on every single movement.

      • Sure, when you travel on a public street you have no reasonable expectation that nobody will see you or remember they saw you. The privacy concern stems from how technology has made it feasible for a government to systematically track the movements of its citizens at a relatively minimal expense.

        Twenty years ago if a government agency wanted to know where you are, they would have to send an officer to physically follow you around. Police officers are expensive, so for budgetary reasons this method of tracking was limited only to people who were strongly suspected of crimes.

        With modern technology, it is feasible for the government to build a system that would tie together the databases from tolling systems, red light cameras, ORCA cards, cell phones, and other sources to get a pretty good idea of where you were at a particular time, much faster and cheaper than dispatching an unmarked squad car. For all we know, the NSA or CIA or some agency that we aren’t even allowed to know exists has already built such a system. This type of tracking becomes faster and cheaper with every passing year.

        You have every right not to be creeped out by this, but I choose to disagree.

      • Are you kidding?

      • So do you want the government to mail you a speeding ticket every time you drive 65 in a 60 zone?

        YES!!!

        The flagrant disregard of speed limits drives me crazy. We have speed limits and laws for a reason. Aside from drug laws (which are a whole other story), I can’t think of any other laws which are so frequently and blatantly violated.

        65 is 8% faster than 60. If you filed a tax return and under-reported your income by 8%, would you not expect a letter from the IRS? If you picked up $100 of groceries, gave the cashier $92, and walked out, would you not expect to be arrested for shoplifting?

        Not to mention, speed limits are chosen because of safety. When you drive 65 mph in a 60 mph zone, you put the lives of yourself and everyone around you at risk. Absolutely you should get a speeding ticket. You’re breaking the law. And if you’re a repeat offender, your license should be suspended.

        And please don’t tell me it’s impossible to control your speed with that precision. If your speed varies by 5 mph, then aim for 55, and you won’t exceed 60.

      • There was a time I would have agreed with the people who think this is paranoia, but now I’m not so sure. Guilt-by-association seems to be how many investigations operate.

        There are two people sitting in jail right now because they wouldn’t answer a prosecutor’s questions about the political opinions of people they know that are connected with the May Day riot. (http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/christmas-in-prison/Content?oid=15565849) It’s not hard to imagine the police rounding up everyone whose on-board GPS showed they were parked near a crime and locking them up until someone talks.

      • The flagrant disregard of speed limits drives me crazy. We have speed limits and laws for a reason. Aside from drug laws (which are a whole other story), I can’t think of any other laws which are so frequently and blatantly violated.

        Like drug laws, speed laws are violated because under many circumstances they make no sense.

        One example (of thousands) that I happen to drive often (and many transit riders ride often, most of them also in vehicles that are speeding): the West Seattle Bridge.

        The limit on the new, rebuilt, widened Spokane St. viaduct is 35, just as on the old narrow viaduct. Go drive westbound on it. Do 35. See how safe you feel. You won’t feel safe. The road is wide, unobstructed, and has clear visibility in all directions, and so people do a comfortable and safe speed, which is usually between 45 and 50. If you are doing 35, you are not in the flow of traffic. Then, on the bridge itself, the limit increases to 45. Again, this is slower than justified by conditions, and people do 55 with absolute safety.

        Asserting that speeding is “threatening lives” in every situation is ridiculous hyperbole and insults the intelligence of road users. And giving the government the ability to ticket every speeder, every time, is a serious infringement on quality of life.

        (It would also slow down transit service considerably. As an experiment, I once tried “driving to rule” for a couple of days on the old First Avenue 15 routes, never speeding even 1 mph, and obeying other policies and laws to the letter no matter the time impact. It cost me upwards of ten minutes per trip.)

      • Matt the Engineer says:

        “and people do 55 with absolute safety” Yet there were five deaths on the WS Bridge between 2001 and 2010. Your definition of absolute safety is different than mine.

      • One example (of thousands) that I happen to drive often (and many transit riders ride often, most of them also in vehicles that are speeding): the West Seattle Bridge.

        If a speed limit is set below what it should be, then the speed limit should be raised.

        It’s true that, on many roadways, the prevailing speed is well above the speed limit. If speed limits were perfectly enforced, then the prevailing speed and the safe speed would be the speed limit. Using today’s poor enforcement to justify tomorrow’s poor enforcement is begging the question.

        I don’t get to pay 5% less taxes because I decide that the government doesn’t really need my money. I don’t get to buy cigarettes if I’m 5% younger than age 18. I don’t get to drive if I’m 5% over the BAC limit. I follow the laws as they are written. If I think they’re excessive, I petition my representative to change them. That’s how democracy works. You don’t get to decide which laws don’t apply to you.

        Asserting that speeding is “threatening lives” in every situation is ridiculous hyperbole and insults the intelligence of road users.

        Everyone thinks they’re a great driver, until they crash.

        You’re right — most of the time, you can speed without consequences. But if you do crash — and it might not even be your fault, it might be a car that came out of nowhere — then the faster you’re going, the more likely that you and the people you collide with will be seriously or fatally injured.

        And giving the government the ability to ticket every speeder, every time, is a serious infringement on quality of life.

        If the quality of your life depends on breaking the law, forgive me if I’m not sympathetic.

      • Matt the Engineer, I can guarantee that those five deaths on the bridge did not result from people driving 55 in clear traffic and otherwise safely. Speed may be responsible for a death when it’s a drunk doing 70, or an idiot doing 55 in bad weather while weaving through heavy traffic.

        Aleks, constant fear of hypervigilant law enforcement is very much a quality of life issue. Speeding aside… how would you feel if a ticket materialized every time you jaywalked (or cut a corner on a crosswalk)? How about every time you’ve had a few beers and walk a bit unsteadily in public (which could constitute public intoxication, a misdemeanor, under a strict reading of the law)? Or if Washington state brought down the full weight of its taxing authority when you bought a CD on your last trip to Portland and failed to pay use tax on it?

        Such law enforcement effectively gives arbitrary power to the government, because everyone becomes a lawbreaker, and enforcement necessarily becomes arbitrary and selective. We can’t observe every law perfectly. Laws are not written that way, and if they were, we wouldn’t have the legal tools to address real threats. I continue to maintain that minor speeding in many places is not a real threat and doesn’t deserve hair-splitting enforcement. (School zones and places with extraordinarily high accident rates are exceptions.)

      • I agree with you that some laws are more important than others, and that with limited law enforcement resources, it makes sense to focus on the more important ones.

        To me, it’s a question of resources. This means that, if there’s a way to cheaply and universally enforce a law, then we should do it. We have lax enforcement of speeding laws today just because it’s difficult to enforce, not because we want to be selective.

        To the extent that I fear law enforcement, it’s because of the selectivity. If I knew that I would get a ticket every single time I jaywalked, then I wouldn’t jaywalk, and I wouldn’t worry about it. I never shoplift, and so the laws against shoplifting don’t trouble me. I think that universal enforcement of fewer laws is always better than selective enforcement of many laws. Again, I would be totally fine with dialing down many of the laws we currently have on the books, in favor of strictly enforcing a smaller number of them.

        And finally, specifically with regards to speeding, I simply disagree. Study after study has found that faster driving is riskier driving. If there are roadways where the posted speed limit is below the safe speed — and I’m happy to grant that such roadways exist — then we should increase the speed limit. The solution to excessively-low speed limits is to raise them, not ignore them.

      • You can’t just set a “safe speed” for a road and assume that it’s always correct — that is, that drivers under that speed should not be ticketed, while drivers 1 mph over should be ticketed. The safe speed can vary depending on weather, time of day, congestion, the vehicle being driven, other vehicles on the road, driver fitness, and many other variables.

        And this is why enforcement of speed limits needs to have some flexibility, and why strict enforcement based on all-seeing GPS data recording is a bad idea.

        If the speed limit is below the safe speed for a given user at a given time, then it is a waste of resources and arguably an abuse of government power to ticket that user. But if the safe speed is below the speed limit for a given user at a given time, then that user should ideally get a ticket for driving too fast for conditions, even though the user is below the limit.

        And there is a psychological factor in setting the limit. If you set the speed limit high enough that it is never below the safe speed, you encourage people to drive too fast in suboptimal conditions. By contrast, if you set the speed limit low enough that the safe speed for most users most of the time is higher than the limit, people will ignore the limit, and strict enforcement will stupidly capture a lot of perfectly safe driving.

        So we live with (in the best case) 85% speed limits, but they are not a panacea. Live officers can work around all of these complications and enforce the law where it needs to be enforced the most. But automated enforcement has a harder time. I think the above explains well why automated camera speed enforcement, where it exists, tends to be triggered only at speeds of 10+ above the limit, and why I’m leery of the strict enforcement you wish to see. (I also think a substantial majority of our limits on highways and divided arterials are too low, but that’s a separate argument.)

      • Matt the Engineer says:

        “The safe speed can vary depending on weather, time of day, congestion, the vehicle being driven, other vehicles on the road, driver fitness, and many other variables.” That’s why it’s called a speed limit. It’s the upper bound of legal speed. If conditions don’t allow for safe travel at that speed, it’s illegal to drive the full speed limit.

        “Live officers can work around all of these complications and enforce the law where it needs to be enforced the most.” When I was a teenager I was ticketed for going 8 mph over the speed limit, on a straight wide freeway, in a stretch where 10+ mph over the speed limit is standard practice, in a group of cars all travelling the same speed as me. Is arbitrary enforcement of laws better than universal enforcement, even though a person writes the ticket? I wouldn’t argue for removing live officers looking for unsafe behavior, and I’m not even convinced in the GPS idea, but I do think our current system is far from ideal.

      • Sorry, Aleks, but you can’t not have some sort of human discretion in traffic enforcement without making people’s lives miserable. Even though I don’t own a car and hardly ever drive, I still very much appreciate this the few times a year I do drive.

        I also don’t like the precedent your ideas would set towards non-car forms of mobility. Do you ticket every bicycle that comes to a rolling stop at a stop sign?

        The pedestrian laws are also full of actions that are technically prohibited but anyone who cares about getting somewhere in a reasonable amount of time quickly learns to do anyway. I’m talking about crossing on a green light that is stuck on “Don’t Walk” or even crossing against a red light if you have a clear view in all directions and it’s plainly obvious that no cars are coming.

        I do follow the sane laws. I don’t dart out in front of moving cars. I wait at red lights if there’s any traffic coming the other way, including left turns. But as long as we have traffic lights that wait a full cycle to turn on the walk sign after you press the button, I’m going to continue to cross anyway if the traffic light is green in the direction that I am crossing.

    • Sorry, I reject your first statement. We all benefit from a good transportation system, whether we use it directly or not. I walk down the stairs and into the PCC (in Fremont) to buy a tomato. Then I walk across the street to work. That is my life. I use the transportation system very little, but I depend on it. Without a good transportation system, I wouldn’t be able to buy food, and the business I work at would quickly fall apart (because other workers can’t walk to work). The same is true for most things. Just because you don’t have kids doesn’t mean that you don’t benefit from a good school system.

      A gas tax makes sense because it is a sin tax. Consuming gas is bad for the environment as well as our health. It costs us money, indirectly, because of the damage it does to both.

      I suppose you could argue that driving an electric vehicle puts wear and tear on the transportation system. It contributes to congestion. But in many of those cases, it is providing a net benefit to society. If you transport those tomatoes to the PCC via an electric truck, then maybe you shouldn’t have to pay a tax. At a minimum, you should pay less than the person who is simply out there using the roads for fun. But that gets to another part of any goal of a tax system: simplicity. The gas tax is a nice, simple sin tax. The fact that some people benefit from a system that is paid for by such a tax even though they don’t directly pay for it is true of many taxes. I don’t smoke, but whatever that tobacco tax pays for, I benefit from.

      • Jim Cusick says:

        “A gas tax makes sense because it is a sin tax. Consuming gas is bad for the environment as well as our health. It costs us money, indirectly, because of the damage it does to both. “

        This all works if Martin’s scheme of diverting gas tax monies to non-highway uses (as most SOV owner’s perceive transit to be) goes along with any increase.

        If an increase is used to fund highway capacity expansion, then calling it a ‘sin tax’ is akin to having a church backed casino/brothell.

        Drink, gamble, …, be merry, and all will be forgiven.

        Please be generous when the collection plate comes around.

        Thank you for your support.

      • One interesting thing about congestion pricing is that, paradoxically, may actually save money to delivery companies who service the area where such a charge is collected? Why? Because anytime the driver gets paid, time is money. For instance, if it costs $15 a day for a permit to drive into the center of London, assuming the truck driver gets paid $15 per hour, he only needs to save one hour each day delivering stuff in order for the fee to pay for itself. And if you’re driving around central London all day delivering stuff to all the businesses there, I can easily see the reduced congestion saving well over an hour of stuck-in-traffic time over the course of the day.

        In other words, congestion charges price people out of their cars who could easily walk or take public transit, freeing up space for delivery vehicles who actually need the roads and can’t switch to alternative forms of transport.

  3. Would it be feasible to work on an initiative to get rid of Tim Eyman’s $30 car license fee? He claims it has “saved” people about $10 billion. That would go a long way toward fixing both highways and transit funding. Has that been tried and I just don’t know about it, or is it just politically impossible?

    • Good luck with that.

      There is something about the MVET that just drives people crazy. I honestly don’t know what it is. Perhaps it’s that it is a big bill that the taxpayer sees directly and has to pay all at once at an arbitrary time of year. The same voters who happily vote themselves much larger sales- or property-tax increases reject even small car fee increases in huge numbers.

      • Maybe it’s just a matter of marketing, then. Sales tax increases for transit pass well here. It might work to lobby the legislature to let counties or transit areas vote for, say, a .9% licensing fee rather than the straight $30. The first $30 goes to the state, then any overage could go to the local taxing authority.

      • The Interstates in the Chicagoland area (save for freeways within Chicago city limits) are all tolled by a tollway authority. These tolls are controversial in that there isn’t a direct correlation between monies collected and the quality of the roadway and maintenance. Several of the interstates to the Indiana, Wisconsin and Iowa borders are tolled but interestingly, the ones to downstate (I-55 and I-57) are not. It was also interesting that there had been a public commitment by then Governor Ryan (now in jail btw) to phase out the tolls because essentially the roads had been “paid for” however a decade later, the tolls remain and indeed they have double and tripled.

        Therein lies one risk that toll authorities pose to an electorate. Corruption.

        There are a number of trends that we will be seeing in cars in the coming years. 1) Federal mandates in CAFE standards for fuel efficiency will mean a near doubling of mpg ratings for new cars and as those cars increase in percentage of the American fleet, per capita fuel consumption will decrease and under current gas tax formulas will lead to reduced revenue. 2) There will be a mode shift to non combustion fuel based cars such as electric or fuel cells powered by renewable sources or natural gas this would also lead to lower revenues 3) Increasing density in cities a definite generational shift away from cars will also reduce vehicle miles traveled.

        But our road infrastructure exists and must be maintained for at least a century to come. I think shoring up the revenue base for road maintenance involves 1) an increase in MVET fees perhaps with an option to pay quarterly 2) a combination of a base tax per gallon with a sales tax 3) a VMT fee 4) Annual environmental inspection 5) A guzzler surcharge for vehicles that get less than 20mpg combined.

      • Nathanael says:

        Charles: I’m quite sure that our road infrastructure as it is now will simply NOT be maintained for the next century.

        It then becomes a question of priorities. I think we should make sure that city streets are maintained, followed by rural two-lane highways. Interstates should be abandoned first.

        There are places where this process has started, with urban expressway teardowns.

      • Nathaniel, the only way interstates will come down is by the provision of high speed rail between major cities with significant transit infrastructure to fill the in betweens. I’m talking at least on the order of magnitude that exists in the United Kingdom. I see that taking about a century. Anything else is a rather dystopian scenario in which case there would be no need for roads because you’d be talking about mass die off of people.

    • It may be a futile effort, but it would show that there is opposition to Eyman’s initiatives, and that they’re starting to organize.

  4. Martin,

    I admit I’m surprised to hear you make this argument.

    Wholly aside from the revenue aspect, driving has at least three externalities — i.e. costs that are borne by people other than the driver.

    One of them, as you’ve pointed out, is the cost of pollution. This is directly proportional to the amount of fuel burned, and so a gas tax is a perfect way to recover this revenue.

    But there are two others. There’s the damage done to roads and other pieces of physical infrastructure, and there’s the space taken up by each vehicle — i.e. congestion. The first is proportional to the weight of the vehicle, to how much it’s driven, and to where it’s driven (bridges and freeways are more expensive than local access roads). The second is proportional to the size of the vehicle, to how much it’s driven, and to where and when it’s driven (driving over a bridge at rush hour contributes much more to congestion than driving on a local access road at midnight).

    Gasoline consumption is a mediocre but acceptable proxy for road damage. However, it completely fails at the goal of capturing the externalities of congestion, for the simple reason that you burn the same amount of gas wherever you drive. If we want to encourage people to drive at off-peak times or to take alternate routes, we need a way to charge different rates for different driving patterns.

    A VMT tax would raise some revenue, and it would cost some money to implement. For me, the important part is that it gives us a new tool to battle congestion, and to keep our streets free-flowing at all times of day. That will make people’s lives better in a meaningful way. A gas tax is incapable of achieving this, except by making driving prohibitively expensive at all times of day.

    I don’t buy the privacy argument. Where you travel in your car is already public information, as any private investigator knows. Look at how many people use services like Foursquare to broadcast to the world everywhere they go. Look at the popularity of services like Progressive Snapshot. If you really want to be secret, you can always opt to use an odometer tracker rather than a GPS tracker; you’ll just pay the maximum per-mile cost wherever you travel. But I think most people will happily accept the discount.

    All that said, I do completely agree with you that eliminating the gas tax wholesale is a bad idea, and a VMT which doesn’t charge different rates for different times/places is worse than useless. And I completely agree that the gas tax should be much higher than it is — it’s always better to tax something you don’t like (such as pollution) than to tax something you do like (such as income or general consumption). If it were possible to fund a government entirely from Pigovian taxes, I would be ecstatic.

    • Ergo, the best approach is the motor fuel tax to discourage fuel consumption, and congestion charges to discourage road use. QED.

    • Martin H. Duke says:

      I agree that tolling is the best tool to manage congestion, and wouldn’t mind that being a funding source too. I would guess, without doing any calculation, that the total externalities of burning the fuel are larger than that of taking up the road space.

      • Sure. If your argument is just that we shouldn’t get rid of the gas tax, then I’m with you 100%. I just think we’ll eventually want both.

    • Nathanael says:

      “If it were possible to fund a government entirely from Pigovian taxes, I would be ecstatic.”

      I’ve made the argument that having obscenely rich people is bad for society, and so income taxes on multimillionaires constitute a Pigovian tax. :-)

    • The gas tax is so optimal. Captures green house gases generated, which are proportional to how much fuel is burned. Discourages consumption of what will be earth’s most critical resource, oil. Adequately accounts for congestion. Has very little collection overhead, no privacy concerns, can be implemented immediately.

    • Adam Bejan Parast says:

      Yeah this is exactly why some sort of VMT tax is better than a gas tax alone. It’s like tolls, a revenue generation and TDM program in one. It’s less efficient to collect, but you get an operational benefit from it which you do not get from gas taxes. In the short term the goal should be to index gas tax to average MPG(or something like that) so it stops declining, in the medium term toll all limited access highways, and in the long term implement a VMT tax.

      I think that the most likely path towards a VMT tax, at least in this region, is via a slow expansion of freeway tolling (which is happening already). At a certainly point the region will hit a critical mass and the jump from facility based tolling to VMT tolling won’t be too far.

  5. Bruce Nourish says:

    This!

  6. To put this in perspective, I recently did a back-of-the-envelope calculation to figure out how much revenue could be raised by raising the gas tax to $0.40 per gallon from it’s current (federal) value of $0.184 per gallon. You’d raise over $500 billion in revenue per 10 years—almost exactly the same revenue as the recent national income tax hikes.

    Yet, that only requires paying an extra $0.22 per gallon—nothing compared to the yearly fluctuations around $4 per gallon.

    So yeah, I agree, it’s a no brainer.

    • Um, yearly fluctuations of around $1 per gallon. If it were 4 we’d see price ranges of $0-4 or $3.33-7.33.

  7. simply repealing the sales tax exemption for gasoline … if that were used to reduce other taxes, especially sales and payroll taxes

    A revenue neutral shift from increasing the taxable base to include gasoline would be about as regressive as restoring the sales tax on food. I’m sure the dealers on Luxury Auto Row would trade an additional 35 cents a gallon for a offsetting discount on the price of a new Bentleys. Other than that minor quibble I agree with everything in the post.

    • Martin H. Duke says:

      I agree that using gas taxes to fund a tax cut is more regressive than the alternative ways to use the money. That’s usually the case with tax cuts! But it’d still be good for the environment and economy, and here in Washington virtually all of the taxes one could cut are pretty regressive themselves.

    • Personally, I would happily take a regressive tax on something we want less of over a progressive tax on something we want more of. You can easily make up the difference with a rebate. Imagine if you raised the gas tax by 5x, but then mailed a $20 rebate to every citizen every month to compensate for the increase. (I’m making up numbers here, but I hope you get the point.) The rebate is progressive, because it represents a larger share of a poor person’s income. But, since you get the rebate regardless of whether you drive (or how much), the tax still serves the purpose of discouraging gas consumption.

      That said, many studies have found that gas taxes are actually pretty progressive. Rich or poor, you still have to eat, and you still need to buy toilet paper. But if you’re poor, you’re much less likely to own a car, and even if you do, you’ll do less driving. So a 1-for-1 replacement of sales tax revenue with gas tax revenue would probably be a net win, with respect to the progressivity of our tax structure.

      • gas taxes are actually pretty progressive… if you’re poor, you’re much less likely to own a car, and even if you do, you’ll do less driving.

        True in some urban settings (NY had a lower cost of living than Seattle when transportation was figured in) and in developing countries where it’s a luxury to own a moped. Decidedly not true in Pugetoplis. Transit mode share is highest in DT Seattle and DT Bellevue where incomes are well above the median. The percentage of income going toward gas tax to fill the BWM is negligible. And if you want to appear progressive you just go out and buy a Prius. Lower paying jobs by contrast are found in outlying areas like the Kent valley and most affordable housing is also out where land is cheap making owning a car almost a requirement for employment. Add to that the cars lower wage earners are likely to be able to afford burn significantly more gas than newer models.

      • You make good points. Still, a high gas tax plus a monthly rebate will be more progressive, and better for the environment, than the current regime.

      • I don’t see how it ever pencils out even as a Robin Hood tax. If you tack on a 5% sales tax you collect maybe $12 a month or $144/yr. Then you mail out Xmas cards with a $20 bill. The poor person is out $124 as is the rich person. Yeah, the $20 at Xmas is appreciated more by the poorer person but they are still out of pocket an amount that represents a much greater burden. If you send out a couple of Benjamins in the Xmas card Tiny Tim will be happy but you’ve just pushed the State into a deeper sinkhole of debt.

      • Then you tack on a 10% tax instead, and you send out $150 in your Xmas card.

        The reason that consumption taxes aren’t progressive is that poor people spend a greater portion of their income than rich people. But a greater portion doesn’t mean more. Even in Pugetopolis, I claim that rich people spend more money on gas than poor people, even if it’s a smaller percentage of their income. If that’s not true, then I agree that no amount of rebates can change anything.

      • “True in some urban settings (NY had a lower cost of living than Seattle when transportation was figured in) and in developing countries where it’s a luxury to own a moped. Decidedly not true in Pugetoplis. Transit mode share is highest in DT Seattle and DT Bellevue where incomes are well above the median.”

        Don’t forget that there also carless people essentially stuck in their houses in Kent and Snohomish County when the buses aren’t running, or when they can’t make their schedule match the hourly bus schedule. They don’t show up in either the transit more share or the driving mode share. They show up in the blocked-mobility share, which is hardly ever measured. That’s less of a problem in Seattle, and it’s practically nonexistent in New York.

    • It’s only regressive if you assume that every low-income person is going to do the same amount of driving, regardless of what the tax is.

      In reality, that’s not the case – when the cost of driving increases, people do drive less, especially low-income people who are most sensitive to the effect. There are tons of ways that people can react to a tax increase to drive less and riding transit is just of many. Simply shopping at a local, neighborhood store or buying online, rather than driving 30 miles to an outlet mall to take advantage of a sale saves a lot of gas. So does trip chaining, carpooling, and working from home once a week.

      • I doubt low-income people are driving to outlet malls frequently. The issue is not that a few people drive to outlet malls occasionally, it’s that many people live a mile or more from the local supermarket, with only houses in between, and maybe a minimal bus nearby or maybe not.

      • Honestly, the best car-free solutions I’ve found for mile-long trips to the supermarket are bike trailers, large backpacks, and Amazon Fresh.

        Even though I don’t own a car, I almost never do grocery shopping by bus. My usual mode of choice is to walk to and from the store – it’s about a mile each way, and a good backpack does the job of getting the groceries home quite well.

        If I wanted to, there are options available where I could take a bus from work to a local grocery store, do some shopping and then take a second bus home, but I have consistently found it less hassle to just go home first, eat dinner, grab my backpack, and do the shopping on foot.

        Large, bulky items which don’t fit in my backpack (mostly paper towels and toilet paper), I simply order those off Amazon so I don’t have to deal with it.

  8. Why should gasoline have both a special federal and state gas tax levied on it PLUS sales tax? The total federal and state gas tax in WA is about 56 cents per gallon. Recently, I have bought gasoline in Seattle for around $3.30 per gallon. That means that the tax rate on the gasoline I recently bought was about TWENTY PERCENT, or TWICE the sales tax rate in Seattle, which is 9.5% on most things.

    [Ot]

    • Why should gasoline have both a special federal and state gas tax levied on it PLUS sales tax?

      Because burning gas causes pollution, which most people agree is a bad thing. Of course, you probably like pollution, since it furthers your goal of depopulating the world. But most people don’t.

      It’s not uncommon to tax “bad things” at a higher rate than “good things”. This is why we have higher taxes on cigarettes and alcohol, both of which are subject to regular sales tax as well.

      • NEW cars are more energy-efficient than any transit system in our area. Yet, the fuel buses and diesel trains burn is not taxed at all. Why is that? Is the pollution from buses and trains a good thing?

      • Lack Thereof says:

        Yet, the fuel buses and diesel trains burn is not taxed at all. Why is that?

        Because taxing the government is pointless. Come on, at least pretend like you’re not trolling.

        NEW cars are more energy-efficient than any transit system in our area.

        For the most recent year I have info for, the most popular new vehicle in America gets 16 MPG city / 22 Highway.
        The #2 seller is 14/19.
        The #3 seller, and first one with any kind of decent mileage, is still only 20/29.

        Just because the models you would consider, as an eco-conscious ZPGer, get great gas mileage, doesn’t mean that the average American single-occupant commuter fleet has changed at all.

      • “Because taxing the government is pointless. Come on, at least pretend like you’re not trolling. ”

        If transit riders actually paid the cost of their trips, as they should, then it would be the transit riders who would be paying taxes on the fuel their trips need, as they should.

        “Just because the models you would consider, as an eco-conscious ZPGer, get great gas mileage, doesn’t mean that the average American single-occupant commuter fleet has changed at all.”

        http://news.yahoo.com/relief-pump-ahead-ny-area-drivers-200508965–finance.html

        “On Monday, the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute said the average gas mileage of new vehicles sold in the U.S. reached its highest point ever in October. Fuel economy has now improved by 20 percent over the last five years and fuel consumption has fallen 17 percent,

        [Ah]

      • Nathanael says:

        And still the average new car sold is less energy-efficient than riding a bus, even in Seattle. Which you lied about, Norman.

      • The fuel efficiency of the bus greatly depends on how many people are riding it. Obviously, a bus with one person burns more fuel than a car, but a bus with 20 people burns less fuel per person than a typical car. I remember reading somewhere that the break-even point was roughly as little as 7 passengers on the bus, although that obviously depends on numerous details about the trip and what kind of car you’re comparing it to.

        In any case, some buses are always going to have very few passengers because saving fuel is not the only reason we have a bus system. We also have buses whose purpose is to provide geographic coverage to certain areas and even if coverage routes may not save that much fuel relative to everyone on the bus driving a separate car, they still serve an important purpose. And if you include the energy consumption that would have gone into the manufacture of the car that the people riding it would have had to buy had the bus not been there, the environment still comes out way ahead with the bus than without the bus.

        Nevertheless, regardless of the average fuel economy of a particular bus route, the marginal fuel cost of a bus that’s already running carrying one more passenger is negligible. So you should never feel environmentally guilty that when you hop on a bus and are one of only 5 passengers, you’re a gas guzzler compared to driving your car. That bus would have been running anyway, for coverage, whether you hopped on or not and the only additional fuel burned on your behalf is that consumed while the bus is idling during the few seconds it takes you to get on and off – much less than the fuel consumption of a car driving the entire trip. When you ride a bus that has very few riders, you are not causing the bus to consume more fuel at the current per-passenger-mile rate, but are helping to turn an empty bus into a full bus, which burns much less fuel per passenger-mile.

    • [Ot]

    • Martin H. Duke says:

      Because the gas tax is a “user fee” dedicated to roads, rather than going into the general fund like any other goods.

      I would be happy to live in a state where the gas tax went into the general fund, and roads could compete for funding with everything else.

      • Your level of happiness would depend largely on which State you lived in. NY maybe, Texas… not so much. But I guess the same could be said regardless of how the gas tax was structured :=

      • And gasoline was taxed at the same rate as other goods — 9.5% in WA state? Which would reduce the revenue from gas tax by half? Is that your idea of a better situation?

        [Ot]

      • Texas does not give roads a priority in its budget? That’s surprising. Especially given the six-lane boulevards a mile apart coming out of Dallas.

        I once heard a quote, “The South doesn’t much like taxes for anything except schools and roads, and sometimes not the former.”

  9. [Ot]

  10. [Ot]

  11. [Ot]

  12. Jim Cusick says:

    I know what you’re up to Martin.

    Very Clever. I’m impressed.

  13. John Bailo says:

    You cannot have a fair tax of any sort unless you include removing restrictions on property tax increases. Even in California they are beginning to discuss removing Prop 13. Property taxes are the most fair of all taxes.

  14. There are some Asian metros that profit and some that don’t. I know korean subways operate in the red, but barely. These transit systems that operate with little or no subsidies have also been given time to mature, which you refuse to do for these new American transit systems. Also asian cities don’t have Tim Eymans and armies of paranoid nimbies fighting density and transit. They actually embrace density and transit.

    • John Bailo says:

      They also have a lot of people who leave to come to less dense places here in the US.

  15. Martin is correct. The gas tax should be increased at the federal, state, and even county level. In Washington State, it is subject to the 18th amendment, but that is OK, as long as it is spent on maintenance, sidewalks, and arterials, and not on the expansion of unpriced limited access highways. It would be good to index it to inflation, but the Legislature has been unwilling to do that. The gas tax is efficient, fair, and easy to collect. The alternatives are not as easy to collect. Its price effects have positive impacts on the issues before us.

  16. I am in total agreement that increases in the gas tax are the easiest and most efficient ways to create a “vehicle miles” revenue stream and that an increase in the gas tax is also preferable to broad expansion of tolling.

    Yes, the gas tax has a bias towards more fuel efficient vehicles. There is nothing wrong with that. More fuel efficient vehicles consume less of a scrarce resource and generate less pollution.

    Yes, electric vehicles don’t pay it. For now that’s simply not a problem worth worrying about. They make up a tiny portion of the fleet and are still experimental and either they have extremely limited range or a gas supplementary motor. If EV’s become 5% of the auto fleet, time to rethink it and maybe those vehicles need to have a reliable odometer and reporting.

    In the meantime, the gas tax is easy and cheap to administer. The costs of collecting it are under 3% of the revenue raised. In comparison, the costs of collecting tolling revenue are more like 30% of the revenue raised, and a VMT system is apt to be equally high since you cannot rely only on the odometers. It is the cabal of transportation consulting and contracting firms who are the biggest advocates of a VMT tax because they see billions of new revenue for themselves.

    I’m in total agreement with Martin. Put the sales tax on gas and use that as general revenue. That’s how we fund things in Washington – it’s a consumption tax. When I buy toilet paper, the sales tax doesn’t go to the sewer system, it goes in the general fund. Same should be true of sales tax on gas. The regular gas tax can go to fund transportation, and projects which improve capacity or reduce congestion can be part of that.

    • “If EV’s become 5% of the auto fleet, time to rethink it and maybe those vehicles need to have a reliable odometer and reporting.”

      Well, we could handle it like itemized tax deductions. You either consent to an odometer recorder, or you pay a generalized average rate.

    • Jim Cusick says:

      “The regular gas tax can go to fund transportation, and projects which improve capacity or reduce congestion can be part of that.”

      I’m on board with that statement. Where do I get to vote?

  17. transitrider says:

    I disagree. While VMT is a-ways off in so far as implementation, I think that needs to be part of the solution, which I believe should have these components:
    * User pays, 60%: tolling, VMT (when available), studded tires, weight fees
    * For the privilege of having access to roads + having a strong, viable transportation network that we benefit from, whether we drive or not: 20%. Things like MVET, VLF, electric vehicle
    * Other reasons: 20% gas tax (to some extent a user fee, though penalizes lower mpg but is a carbon tax), vehicle emissions fee
    Since the gas tax can only be used for roads, it must be substantially more than the tepid 8¢ that civic leaders have proposed. The need for road preservation & maintenance is $1.0 billion! Even a 15¢ gas tax increase only raises $465 million. I’d suggest adding to this 0.7% MVET (vs. 1.5%) and the $40 VLF, along with some of the other items listed above, and provide a list of what will be worked on plus regular progress reports.

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