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Opinion: End hidden car taxes -- raise gas tax

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  • 7/21 SJ Business Journal
    Published Monday, July 21, 2003, in the San Jose Business Journal Opinion Drivers get cheap ride at everyone else s expense By Walt Seifert Remember the free
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 21, 2003
      Published Monday, July 21, 2003, in the San Jose Business Journal

      Opinion

      Drivers get cheap ride at everyone else's expense

      By Walt Seifert

      Remember the free lunch? Neither do I. Free lunches disappeared
      because it's tough to keep a business going when you're giving away
      the merchandise.

      Yet Audrie Krause seems to worry more about losing her free lunch
      <http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BATN/message/12654> than about paying
      the very real tab for automobile overuse ("Bureaucrats mull $1.5
      billion in hidden gas taxes," Guest Comment, June 13 Business
      Journal).

      Ms. Krause and an organization called Stop Hidden Gas Taxes want us
      to tell the governor and state legislators that we oppose a
      California Energy Commission and Air Resources Board recommendation
      to reduce the demand for gasoline. The reason we should oppose this
      sensible idea? It might mean higher gas prices.

      Stop Hidden Gas Taxes professes to be a coalition of business,
      taxpayer and consumer groups. Yet its approach is distinctly
      unbusinesslike, unfair to taxpayers, and works contrary to the most
      important concerns of citizens and consumers.

      Let's start with being businesslike.

      Even though they may not give away lunches anymore, some retailers
      use loss leaders to increase customer traffic so they can boost
      profits from sales of other items. But when government "sells" road
      use at a loss, the increased traffic doesn't create profits. The
      result is more losses.

      More traffic means more road repair and creates a multitude of other
      problems, including air pollution, congestion and crashes. This is
      not good business.

      Current gas taxes don't even cover road maintenance needs, let alone
      costs of road widening and new construction. And when simple,
      inexpensive road surface treatments are deferred too long, roads
      must be reconstructed at gargantuan costs.

      Why are we in this fix? Better fuel economy means cars go roughly
      twice as far per gallon as they did 50 years ago. As a result, the
      amount of gas tax revenue per mile driven has plunged. Moreover, gas
      taxes haven't kept up with inflation, while road construction costs
      have outpaced inflation. In California, gas taxes were 6 cents a
      gallon in 1957. Today they are 18 cents per gallon. If state fuel
      taxes had merely kept even with inflation, gas taxes would be 32.5
      cents per gallon, nearly double the amount now.

      While nobody is clamoring for new taxes, high taxes aren't at the
      top of the list of citizen concerns. According to a Public Policy
      Institute of California survey of the Central Valley, residents'
      major concerns are air pollution and traffic congestion. Making it
      more expensive to drive, while unpopular, will reduce pollution and
      congestion, just as charging more for cigarettes has reduced tobacco
      use.

      Sadly, it's only too true that the way we've designed communities
      has virtually forced people to drive. It's very difficult to change
      how we live in the short term. But economics affirms that price does
      affect behavior. People tend to make rational choices about
      spending.

      If gas costs more, they will use less. In the long term, paying the
      right amount for gas will influence where people choose to live and
      where businesses locate.

      When gas taxes paid by users aren't high enough to pay for the
      roads, general taxes, such as sales taxes, must make up the
      difference. Though expedient, this is not fair. Why should someone
      who drives very little have to pay for road use when they dine at a
      neighborhood restaurant or buy a new suit?

      Which is a "hidden" tax -- gas taxes paying for the costs of gas
      use, or sales taxes on a DVD player footing transportation bills?

      Stop Hidden Gas Taxes asserts that energy conservation is a
      reasonable goal, but we need to let market competition work, citing
      a doubling of fuel efficiency over the last 30 years. Efficiency has
      gone up, but because of federal fuel economy standards, not because
      of market competition. Though cars get better mileage, miles driven
      continue to increase at a much faster rate than population growth.
      (See definition of sprawl.)

      Eating is not a bad thing. Gluttony is. Driving is not a sin. Too
      much driving is a problem. It simply is not good public policy to
      subsidize excessive auto use when that subsidy is accompanied by so
      much negative baggage. Why subsidize transportation that fills our
      neighborhoods with noise, fouls the air, pollutes the waters,
      degrades public health, and kills 40,000 Americans every year?

      No one likes to pay taxes. Everyone would like a free lunch. But if
      we want a better world, drivers need to pay the full costs of
      vehicle use, not continue to avoid them.


      Walt Seifert is executive director of the nonprofit Sacramento Area
      Bicycle Advocates and is a member of the Sacramento Air Quality and
      Transportation Collaborative.
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