Since the breathless predictions I linked to this summer apparently aren’t going to happen, I was going to write a piece on how it’s a great time to raise the gas tax.  However, Michael Kinsley has covered all the main political points in Time, while  Mike Lillis in The Washington Independent goes a little deeper into the economics, for those of you so inclined.

All I can add is that this is equally good advice at the state level.  Kinsley’s right that there’s no reason, in principle, to object to the gas tax unless your policy goal is to maximize gasoline consumption.  In any other case, the state could take the money to cut other taxes or subsidize whoever it is you think is being hurt by this proposal.

UPDATE: Of course, here in this state our wonderful state constitution restricts our ability to offset the impact of tax increases by forcing it to all be spent on roads.   There’s another thing Olympia could fix if they weren’t obsessed with asphault.

18 Replies to “Raise the Gas Tax Now”

  1. Why on earth would the middle of a recession be a good time to raise taxes on anything? Maybe getting a handle on spending (kudos to getting a project out on time and underbudget, soundtransit!) and taking a long hard look at where our money is going would prove more worthwhile. Making gas artificially expensive(er) before alternatives exist is going to do more harm than good. Why put this cart before the horse? We don’t have soild transit infrastructure in place that can substitute for cars–and that’s just here in Seattle!

    Think about the poor in small towns, where an increase in gas tax would significantly harm them more than you or I. We Seattle denziens can at least make a choice to minimize our driving through the use of a reasonably well planned transit system that occasionally runs on schedule. Somehow I don’t think that Ruby, Alaska is going to have that luxury.

    Speaking of late buses, we need a Mussolini-like candidate for city mayor. Someone who will proclaim (with fists waving) that the buses will run on a schedule! Imagine it: fists pounding on the podium at a news conference. The cub reporter from the Stranger sobs in fear. The nieghboorhood blogs develop some sort of clever name for him–Il Dulce de Leche.

    That’d be a fun couple years, huh? I guess we’re probably going to end up with a condo magnate in Il Dulce Leche’s stead.

    1. What I’m afraid of is not the controlled tax increase that Martin is talking about, but the uncontrolled gas price increase that the market will soon dole out. My favorite statistic is the 61% of petroleum geologists believe peak oil will hit us in less than 10 years. That means we have less than 10 years to transition people off of our current level of vehicle use, or we’ll hit an oil drum wall and see people that are used to driving really suffer.

      Increase gas prices slowly, and it will give people time to trade out gas guzzling cars, pressure their counties for better bus service, and look for jobs closer to home. Maybe this will even convince them over time to move to a city. Then when peak oil hits and prices skyrocket, they’ll be a bit more prepared.

    2. I think the big problem is that we won’t get that transit infrastructure in place without creating demand for it. With gas prices suddenly dropping dramatically, people are going back to driving.

    1. A recession is the only time you can do it. During a boom, gas prices will be higher. Right now, with the price of gas having dropped by half, people are relieved at the low price.

      This would be a good time to switch to a percentage-based tax.

      1. Ben’s right, and in a lot of ways, if the gas tax pushes consumption down a little now, it might also make the ultimate price take longer to arrive.

        Sounds bad at first, but the tax will make up the difference.

  2. I should clarify–there is a way we could get higher gas taxes in the current economic climate. Offset them with lower sales taxes so that the net effect on the typical consumer is zero. And rather than a gas tax, we should be thinking carbon tax. We could do this at the state level: shift the sales tax to a carbon tax and continue to raise that tax gradually with the goal of lowering oil and gas consumption by a few percent each year. 3% over 40 years is enough to hit global warming emissions targets. If consumption the previous year didn’t go down enough, raise the tax the next year, offsetting with sales tax decreases.

    1. We just failed last year to convince the state legislature to *allow* Seattle to *ask* voters about a carbon tax. That’s a long road ahead.

  3. Let’s apply the sales tax to gas. That money would have no constitutional restriction on how it could be spent. I would like to see some restrictions put on the new revenue stream if it happens. Say all spending must be for transportation related things our current gas tax isn’t allowed to cover (rail/transit/pedestrian/bike).

  4. Here’s the problem. Cities like the idea of transit. The federal government makes it exceptionally hard to provide funds to cities to build the infrastructure that they want. So cities still want their transit so they raise the sales tax because it isn’t all that hard to do. Unfortunately, the sale tax is much more regressive than the gas tax. The gas tax does a good job capturing the externalities associated with driving. You could also rebate trucking companies, rail, and other small businesses etc.

    Raising the gas tax incrementally gives time to consumers to switch to more fuel efficient cars and doesn’t but burden in the immediate recession.

    Now using gas tax money to fund public transportation projects is another debate. Personally I feel that driver’s should pay a little to keep their roads uncongested.

    Now if cars of the future eventually run off of electricity, air, magic, what have you. You still have the cost of congestion. Transit needs to be part of the solution.

    1. The nice thing about raising the gas tax is that it makes it slightly more economical to build electric or other cars.

      Not that I think they’re going to happen.

      But at the state level, we would have to fix the requirement that the gas tax goes into highways alone.

    2. the drivers ‘who should pay a little’ to keep thier roads uncongested do pay though other government takings such as sales and property tax.

      Furthermore, if you want to be good for the environment, how does rebating trucking, rail (subsidized out the fuckin’ wazoo to begin with) and other ‘small business’ help get any ducks squeezed at all? If the gas tax has externalities like lower congestion, than why would we rebate anything?

      I think the issue here for people such as myself is mostly that I pay for transit through various taxes, but then I’d have to pay again if I chose to drive a car. Why can’t we do more work on getting per passenger mile costs down to where they’re reasonable?

  5. Nobody commenting here is making bad points, but I think the point of the post is missed by Brant, among others. The price of gas topped out at over $5 a gallon less than six months ago. Now, it’s in the $1.60’s locally. Raising the gas tax isn’t about changing behavior in this instance, so much as it’s about taking advantage of the drop in price. I understand the “it’s a recession and higher taxes are painful” argument but only in a vacuum. Here, it’s harder to argue raising the gas tax a dime a gallon is painful at all given the fact that gas is a dime cheaper this week than it was last week!


    1. 2 days after your post and OPEC responds to market conditions (just as you wanted to) by slashing production by 4 million bbl a day.

      Gas being this cheap is going to be yet another stick in this inflationary log cabin we’re building, and real wages take forever to catch up to infaltion. I suspect that the hyperinflationary conditions that may be caused by the Feds latest move is going to slow down the catch up even further.

      Part of the problems on the transit and driver and biker sides is that we treat each other as a source of income and a commodity, when we’re all already subsidizing each others modes of transit in some ways (bikers subsidize others the least, followed by ground transit, followed by cars, followed up by ‘everybody’, according to my seriously scientific calulations). I wish there was less hyperbole and irrational passion, so we could get a bunch of smart people together who want to provide safe travels for bikes, quick and (DEAR GOD PLEASE) on time arrivals for buses and trains, and quick uncongested roads where bikers aren’t endangering the lives of themselves and others.

      I’m a registered nurse, and I work for a visiting nurse service. During my working day, I drive as a rule. I also live on capitol hill. During my non-working days, I don’t use my car, I use my feets and transit, beacuse I like those modes better–but only when I’m not lugging around the 40 pounds of gear I carry on my person and in my trunk. There are going to be places and professions where 2-4 passenger single occupancy vehicles are going to be required. Maaaaybe if I lived in london or NYC I’d be able to do my job efficiently, gear notwithstanding.

      You still want people using cars. And cars need infrastructure. We need buses to go places we can’t put trains, and we need cars to deliver those bike parts, firefolk EMS workers and policefolk.

      It’s a tough deal, but fighting about how to fuck over the other sides of the triangle (transit, auto, bike/ped) is a good way to get a frustratingly bad result. (sharrows, anyone?)

  6. I have been in total agreement of using more gas tax in order to keep demand low and transit ridership up. However, before we do that and line up olympia’s bureaucratic coffers. Last year, 6,000 were added to bureaucratic positions in Olympia. If each worker got 50k dollars a year salary, 300 million goes down the drain per year. If there is a raise in gas tax, it should be required in the form of alternative transportation or perhaps go directly to education. That’s an area they could fix. However, spending also needs to come down.

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