New buzz about the federal gas tax is in the air.
A USA Today report found that American motorists are now spending the lowest amount of money per mile to maintain infrastructure since the advent of the automobile.
"Americans spent just 46 cents on gas taxes for every $100 of income in the first quarter of 2010. That's the lowest rate since the government began keeping track in 1929. By comparison, Americans spent $1.18 in 1970 on gas taxes out of every $100 earned."This interesting finding leads the Washington Post editorial board to connect the dots and call for an increase in the federal gas tax rate, which has not been touched since 1993. While almost every group interested in transportation policy supports some sort of levy on driving like this, it still is a tough sell with the general public. A choice comment on the editorial illustrates this well:
"Since when must citizens pay for the "privilege" of driving on OUR roads? Should I thank Obama for allowing me to drive to work today?"Reading between the lines, I can only assume the gods of asphalt and rebar have gifted this regular American citizen with motoring freedom, and the government should just get out of the way. What he might not realize is that the Highway Trust Fund is almost bankrupt, and the tab is being picked up by general revenues (read deficit) this year - $19.5 billion, as it was last year - $7 billion, and the year before that - $8 billion. So, this gentleman need not thank Obama, but he might want to thank his grandchildren for the privilege of his drive to work.
Where the Highway Trust Fund is headed (in billions) from Congressional Budget Office.
One interesting twist on the public perception front is that new polls have shown that Americans are more receptive to a gas tax if they can be assured the revenues would go toward reducing climate change. It seems that there is a sizable segment of the population that agrees, in theory, that externalities from driving should be paid for, but worries that more funds would just set us back on the course of business-as-usual highway building. Check out the full 19% spread in approval of a simple .10 gas tax and the same gas tax with dedicated environmental goals.
Survey Results from a gas tax poll, June 2010 from Mineta Transportation Institute
To wrap this up, Brookings' Robert Puentes offers an astute reaction to the Washington Post call for higher gas taxes. He's principally concerned with this trend:
Graph compiled from FHWA Traffic Volume Trends 2000 - 2010
Vehicle miles traveled plateaued between 2006 and 2008 and we seem to be dropping off the other end of the curve. With Americans driving less and less every year (and driving more fuel-efficient vehicles when they do), pinning the bulk of infrastructure revenues onto gas taxes alone is boarding a sinking ship - while jabbing more holes in the hull all the way down.
"So while near-term gas tax increases are necessary on the federal and state levels just to stay afloat, we need to be thinking about a range of other options to raise transportation revenue such as pay-as-you-drive charges, tolls, congestion fees and -- most significant -- a carbon tax."