The Gas Tax
Is Not A User Fee
Payment of gasoline taxes and use of the interstate highways system are too
divorced from each other for the consumer to feel they are actually making
an active choice to pay and use the highway.
What is the choice? I get on the entrance ramp, drive down the highway, and
get off at the exit ramp. Nobody asked me for any money. I always think of
highways as being free to use. How about you? And yet, they are not free.
Far from it. Highways cost a lot to build and a lot to maintain. That
doesn't even include all the peripheral services such a police patrol and
other emergency services.
Highway advocates try to claim that gasoline taxes are a "user fee".
I think there is a serious problem with viewing the gasoline taxes as
When I buy gas, the tax money is taken from me. That money is used to
build and maintain highways. When I want to go somewhere, what choices
am I offered? Since they used my money to build highways rather than
something else, highways are the best that I am offered. I might not want
to take the highway, but since that is what they built with my money, it
is usually the only reasonable way to travel.
To me, this seems like a Catch-22. If the government uses the gas tax money
for highways, then highways are what will be built. I'll have little choice
but to use highways. To use the highway, I will have to buy gas. The
government will charge me tax on the gas and apply that to the highways.
And so the cycle goes on.
But what if I don't like highways? What if I don't want to use the highways?
Little else has been built for most travels. Thus, I have to take the
highways. Each mile I drive and every gallon of gas that I buy will be
considered a vote of support by the highway lobby! This lobby will argue
that every cent of the gas tax should be spent on the highway since I am
using the gas to drive on the highway. But I wouldn't be driving on the
highway if I were given some other reasonable choices!
This is what I would like to see. The technology does exist to do this.
I think we should be given credit equal to the amount of tax that we pay
on every gallon of gas that we purchase. This credit can only be used for
transportation and for no other purpose. All highways should have a toll
which is based on the cost of operation of that highway and the amortized
cost to build the highway. Methods now exist which are already in wide
use in California to collect these tolls without stopping or even slowing
down to pay the toll.
People should then be given the option to spend their transportation credit
any way that they want. In addition to being able to use it for highway
tolls, they can also use it for mass transit, commuter rail, Amtrak, buses,
ferries and any other mode of ground transportation. To make this fair,
even bicycle paths should have a toll set to properly cover their costs
which could be paid by these transportation credits. These credits could even
be used for express buses or for participation in a van or car pool!
I think this would be a start at really pumping funds into alternate modes
of transportation. It would also make people aware of the real costs of
using the highways. With such a true comparison of costs, I think many
people would start using the alternative and usually much more economical
modes of transportation.
Each mode of transportation could use the funds received from these gas
tax credits to expand and improve their infrastructure. Amtrak and commuter
rail would use the funds to improve and expand their railways. Subways
and ferries could use their funds to improve and expand their services.
Bicycle paths could use the funds they receive to build additional paths.
A large portion of the transportation credits collected by buses, van pools
and car pools, as well as the highway tolls collected, would naturally go
back into the highway infrastructure.
Once enough infrastructure has been built for these other transportation
modes to make them truly viable alternatives to highway travel, a decrease
in highway usage can be expected. This will mean that less gas is being
consumed and less gas tax funds will be collected. Little by little,
travelers will find they don't have enough transportation credits to pay
the full fee for paying highway tolls or fares on alternative modes.
That really isn't a problem. Travelers just pay the difference in cash.
Since they are buying less gas, they have more cash available to pay tolls
and fares. Now those are what I call true "user fees"!!!
In this manner, people are provided with a number of transportation choices
and can have their funds directed to the mode of transportation they prefer
to use. Each mode will receive an amount of funds comparable to the number
of travelers attracted to that mode. This proposal will break the cycle of
all the transportation funds going into just one mode. Thus, people won't
be forced to select among alternatives where only one mode has been
adequately funded and implemented.
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