Wouldn’t you know it—as soon as the New York Times puts its editorials behind a subscription-only wall, they publish something worth reading:  semi-libertarian John Tierney waxing rhapsodic about gas taxes (sorry, the link is subscription only).

To summarize, Tierney argues for a 50 cent per gallon gas tax, with all receipts used to fund private Social Security accounts.  This, he says, would simultaneously reduce gas consumption, pollution, congestion, and all the other costs that drivers impose on the rest of society, all while enhancing retirement revenue.  And if gas taxes revenues are split evenly among all citizens, the poor (who drive little) will get far more out of the deal than they put in.

Now, I’ll ignore his Social Security proposal—which isn’t a real proposal, just a sketch of an idea—except to say that I’m skeptical, but (hopefully) open-minded.  But what’s important to note here is this:  Tierney is calling for gas taxes to be used for something other than transportation.  And that seems like a really big deal to me.

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  • Traditionally, gas taxes are earmarked for roads and highway spending:  the federal gas tax is devoted almost entirely to transportation projects.  Likewise, Washington state’s gas tax receipts must be spent on highways.  It’s in the state constitution, even. 

    All of which means that gas taxes are mostly used to build new roads and "improve" old ones—which encourages more driving.  That’s good news for oil companies, auto manufacturers, and for people who really like to spend time in their cars; but obviously bad in lots of other ways.

    Now, the thing is, gas taxes are fairly unique in this regard. Sales taxes aren’t earmarked for programs to increase sales; income taxes aren’t earmarked for programs to enhance income; so why are gas taxes, and gas taxes alone, treated as a dedicated funding source that can only be used to increase driving and, indirectly, gas consumption?  It doesn’t make much sense—and, obviously, it’s a major reason that our society spends so much money on roads and transportation generally.

    It doesn’t have to be that way.  There’s no reason that gas taxes can’t be treated as just another general revenue source, just like sales and income taxes; or that they can’t be earmarked for something other than transportation.  That, rather than his thoughts about Social Security, seems to be the important thing to take away from Tierney’s article.