Friday, September 01, 2006

Gasoline Taxes and Road Building

While I'm all for low taxes, I believe that gasoline taxes and tolls on highways can be perfectly reasonable, provided, however, that there are some constraints to them.

Roads cost money to build and maintain, and therefore, I think it's fair that the people that actually use the roads pay for their use. If someone has managed to position their life so they can walk to work and walk to the stores they need, why should they have to pay taxes so I can drive a car? However, the collary should also be true: if I drive, why should the gas taxes and tolls go to items other than those that are necessary to maintain the road?

I favor congestion-based tolls. These would be tolls that would be charged only during peak periods: by peak periods, I mean only those times when traffic moves less than the speed limit. As I wrote in a previous blog entry, these tolls would be set at such a rate so that enough people were deterred from using the road until the speed limit could then be attained. I believe this would be a more sensible allocation of a limited resource than to force everyone to sit in a traffic jam.

Now, if the congestion-based tolls are throwing out so much money that no other funding for roads is needed, this would tell me that the road infrastructure is woefully inadequate. The excess funds should be used to build more roads. The objective with congestion-based tolls isn't to raise revenue, it's simply to reallocate resources to those willing to pay for them.

Regular tolls are fine, as long as the toll can be collected efficiently. I hate having to wait 20 minutes to pay $1 for a toll. Gasoline taxes and various property taxes on cars are also acceptable, so long as these funds are not diverted to other sources.

So whatever gasoline taxes and tolls would have to be to maintain the road system is where I think the taxes should be set. However, there's one slight problem here. If a small state, such as Rhode Island, needed to have higher taxes than the neighboring states (perhaps because of more miles driven by its residents, more miles per car, or whatever), this could cause locals to cross state lines when making purchases. Taxes need to be high enough to cover costs, but not so high that people start finding alternative fuel sources in other states. States like these would probably have to revert to more tolls. Traffic fines should also be used solely for the road system.

The cost of the road system are construction costs, repair, snowplowing, traffic police salaries, and the cost for emergency rescue personnel for the portion that they deal with automobile accidents.

So would this make gas taxes higher or lower?

Currently, gasoline is taxed at $0.184 per gallon by the federal government, and then the states add their own taxes. This brings in about $30 billion to $40 billion per year, according to various estimates. The most recent highway bill signed by Bush had $286.4 billion in spending over six years, which right there is more than the gas taxes collected. This would indicate that the gas taxes aren't enough to fund federal transportation spending. Add to the fact that much of the $0.184 collected is block granted back to the states, and it looks like the federal gas tax is woefully short of where it should be. The highway bill was also filled with lots of local projects, not for the interstate highway system. The bridge to nowhere in Alaska is only the most ridiculous example.

Republicans and Democrats alike call for tax holidays of the gas tax. I guess my question would be: during this time, would you still build and repair roads, have police and fire units, etc? If so, then who's going to pay for it all if not the drivers. If I set up my life so that I don't need to drive, why should my income taxes go up to pay so people can drive?

At the same time, gas taxes shouldn't be thought of as a piggy bank to fund other non-road related projects.

There's a few other things I haven't mentioned. Pollution. In my above proposal, there's no allocation for pollution. I would definitely favor some sort of duty on pollution to encourage people to reduce their own. Charge each car based on the amount of particulates per mile times the number of miles driven; this will encourage people to get cars that pollute less. I don't really care if the car is a hybrid or runs on ehanol. Base it on the output. I never understood why there should be tax breaks for hybrids. Why not tax breaks for really fuel efficient cars, most of which happen to be hybrids. But what if someone else came up with a different way? Like reducing the number of cylinders in use when on a highway.

Public transportation. Many governments seem to think that drivers should pay for public transportation, because for every guy on the railroad, he's not on the road. However, if we were going to have a closed system, in which gas taxes and tolls and fines pay for roads and highways, then why should the drivers pay for the railroad riders? Yeah, they reduce congestion. So what. If a factory were to build worker housing next to the factory, should the owner get the same tax break because he's reducing congestion as well? Or if a company allows its employees to work from home or have flex commuting, should they get a tax break? Well, they sort of would, because under my proposal congestion wouldn't happen often: except when there was a wreck, there should be little congestion due to peak tolls.

So in any event, keep road taxes and tolls as high as necessary to maintain and build the roads. Don't expect subsidies, and don't expect to subsidize anyone else...

1 comment:

Blake Weddel said...

Gas is expensive not because of the taxes but because gas is expensive in the first place. And tolls are used mostly in road maintenance, to ensure safety for the motorists. I believe it's perfectly reasonable. Having peace of mind is definitely worth it.