Should drivers demand higher gas taxes?

Written by Jon Schmitz on .

Should drivers welcome higher gasoline taxes?

pumpIt’s hard to imagine that happening. But the new chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, said an increase in the 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal levy should be considered, as well as a transition to a fee based on miles traveled, along with more tolling and public-private financing of highway projects.

All forward-thinking positions from Mr. Shuster, who has sufficient political standing not to worry about backlash from anti-tax zealots.

Let’s take ‘em one at a time.

The federal tax is not indexed to inflation — it’s 18.4 cents a gallon whether that gallon costs $2 or $5 — and has not been raised since 1993. Think about it: if you had to go 19 years without a pay raise, what impact would that have on your buying power?

The gas tax is no longer sufficient to pay for even the bare-bones transportation programs operated by federal and state governments. (Pennsylvania has all but given up on building new capacity-adding projects, is devoting 95 percent of its budget to maintaining existing roads and bridges, yet is falling behind on road upkeep and is about to backslide on rehabbing structually deficient bridges.) Bringing the federal tax up to where it would have been if it had grown with inflation makes all the sense in the world.

But the gas tax is a dinosaur and should be phased out in favor of fees that more fairly assess those who use the roads the most. If you drive a fuel-sipper, you are saving money at the pump, but your vehicle beats up the roads about the same as a 15-mpg sedan. Meanwhile, drivers of electric cars are getting a completely free ride. A tax on miles traveled would be fairer, and a more reliable money raiser for government.

Tolls are another way to put the burden for road and bridge upkeep on those who use them the most. The ability to collect tolls electronically and the reluctance of lawmakers to raise taxes is likely to generate pressure for expanded tolling.

Private financing has helped some governments pay for expensive and much-needed new highway capacity. It hasn’t happened in Pennsylvania but a new state law clears the way for private investors to cut deals with governments to pay for new or expanded roads, in exchange for a share of the toll revenue they generate.

So why should any of this be welcome news to drivers? Study after study has shown that the cost of sitting in traffic jams, detouring around closed bridges and repairing vehicle damage from bad roads far exceeds the cost of paying enough in taxes and fees to create and maintain an adequate road system.

Road work advisories:

The Boston Bridge over the Youghiogheny River will have alternating one-way traffic from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday during inspection.

Short-term lane closures will start Monday on Route 885-Mifflin Road in Hays during drilling for future improvement projects. The closures are possible from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays through Dec. 12 between Slate Street and Doerrville Avenue, with restrictions also possible on Slate and Doerrville.

Lane closures and traffic shifts are possible on the Bedford Avenue bridge over Interstate 579-Crosstown Boulevard and Bigelow Boulevard ramps in that area of Downtown Pittsburgh from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. next Monday through Friday.

There’s more about road restrictions in earlier postings and we’re expecting some weekend advisories later in the day, so check back.

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