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.