Or maybe not:
“These are multibillion-dollar projects, and there just isn’t the funding within the current gas tax to pay for these things,” said Rep. Jim Moeller, a Vancouver Democrat who serves on the House Transportation Committee.
That’s a recent article in the Vancouver Columbian pointing out, correctly, that state gas tax revenues will not be sufficient to pay for all the big new roadway projects on the table in Washington. In fact, the state could be looking at a $3.8 billion funding shortfall by 2025. It sounds scary, but is it really a problem?
A fiscal conservative might point out that there are two sides to a funding shortfall: revenue and expenses. For plenty of reasons, total gas tax revenue is on the decline. Yet our transportation spending habits don’t appear to be changing in tandem. Instead, lawmakers are worried about how to pay for big-ticket stuff:
Four gigantic transportation improvements are looming, including a new I-5 bridge across the Columbia River. The others are a replacement for Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct, the state Highway 520 floating bridge across Lake Washington and a north-south freeway for Spokane.
At the risk of getting all fiscal discipline-y, maybe we should consider, um, not building some of these projects. It’s pretty clear that we can’t pay for them, so perhaps we might try some least-cost measures to replace them. Things like meeting capacity on the Columbia River Crossing with tolling, transit, and other “demand management” techniques. Or, I don’t know, the “surface-transit option” on Seattle’s waterfront.
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There aren’t really many popular alternatives available to pay for roads. We can’t pay for the state’s highway wish list without finding more money somewhere. So, we can raise the gas tax, possibly by pegging it to inflation; or we can seriously amp up tolling; or we can raid other funding sources.
Or, we can recognize that there’s just not a sensible long-term commitment to highways. The Seattle Times blames the problem, somewhat oddly, on “fuel efficient” cars, but the diminished gas tax revenue is a result of many factors, including high unemployment, lower incomes, higher global oil prices, and reduced driving mileage as people choose alternatives to driving or make shorter or fewer trips. And it may soon be exacerbated by an aging population that’s less interested in, or even able to, make most trips behind the wheel.
Just from a fiscal perspective—forgetting about all the environmental and health impacts—it looks like we’re going to have some hard choices to make about driving. Either it’s going to have to pay its own way, or we’ll have to make do with fewer roads. And actually, if it does start paying its own way, then we may be doing even less driving than we thought.
I’m sure you’re way ahead of me on all this, Eric, but isn’t your argument here built on the assumption that gas use and highway VMT will continue to correlate pretty well? And isn’t that obviously likely to change if batteries keep improving and gas prices keep escalating?There’s no question that an electric car does more or less comparable damage to a road than an internal combustion car, right? And certainly it contributes equally to congestion.I don’t know what happens politically if the cost of building and repairing roads that serve increasing numbers of electric cars continues to fall disproportionately on a large but shrinking number of gasoline users. But assuming your goal is to maintain funding for some base level of road infrastructure to serve an increasingly green SOV fleet, it seems like some sort of pay-by-the-mile or at least pay-by-the-kWh system is needed.What’s more, it seems like it’s needed soon, because the easiest political way to make those taxes possible would be to cut gasoline taxes in exchange. But once people have dropped out of the gasoline market, they’ll fight tooth and nail against a pay-by-the-mile tax. And then roads start competing even more with social services for our sales/property/income tax dollars.Obviously shifting taxes from gasoline to energy or to mileage would have secondary effects on carbon emissions. But that might require a different solution.
Eric de Place
Great points, Michael!Personally, I’m torn about the merits of a VMT tax. To me, it seems simpler, and possibly fairer, to just develop system-wide road pricing (tolls, I mean), which can manage congestion more effectively than a macro-level VMT tax. Road-pricing is also, I’d wager, more technologically and politically feasible—and it can be more easily targeted to address maintenance and driving-alternatives for specific segments of the highway network. That said, for a variety of reasons—one of which is funding—I dearly wish that policymakers would consider planning for a future that includes fewer miles of highway and a much-reduced dependence on vehicles, whether powered by gasoline, or electricity, or what have you.
Thanks, Eric. Clearly you and John Charles need to team up on this…
The motor vehicle fuel tax is a remarkable funding source, if we’d just use it. It taxes in proportion to vehicle size and/or efficiency, with smaller more efficient vehicles paying less, and larger less efficient paying more. And alternative fuel (i.e. electric) vehicles pay nothing at all—at least until they become ubiquitous. I did a little back-of-the-envelope calculation a while ago—if the 7.5 cents-per-gallon gasoline tax of the 1960’s had kept up with inflation and fuel efficiency, it would be roughly 75 cents-per-gallon today. At 75 cents, it would generate the same revenue per vehicle mile as 45 years ago, measured in constant dollars.There’s nothing wrong with the motor vehicle fuel tax—we just choose not to use it.
One of the most offensive comments I hear aimed at cyclists is that we “don’t pay our fair share”. It’s as if cyclists, who pay no gas tax, are complete deadbeats that do not contribute towards the infrastructure that they use. Motorists who use this argument fail to remember that cyclists DO pay property taxes – either directly or indirectly, in the case of apartment dwellers. For the majority of roads that cyclists travel, *property taxes* are the primary funding source, not the gas tax.When you consider that most cyclists also own cars and pay gas taxes, registration fees, and sales taxes, it becomes quite clear that we actually pay *more* than our fair share – It is the automobile-only drivers that are actually the deadbeats… Failing to acknowledge the large flows of money from property taxes, and possibly sales taxes (?), into our road infrastructure just perpetuates the myth that automobile drivers alone pay for our road system.
The bill by Rep. Jim Moeller creating 2.5-cent fuel tax for each gallon exported out of Washington refiners (over half of which goes to Oregon) may violate United States Constitution Article 1, Section 9, Clause 5: “No tax or duty shall be laid on Articles exported from any State”. Living in Springfield, OR.
The point about electric vehicles causing wear-and-tear and taking up valuable road space should be an excuse to move away from the taxing gas to a system that requires all motorized vehicles to be equipped with meters that transit location, speed, and even mechanicals (like gas-pedal functioning a la Toyotas) so that we can charge fees and taxes on a whole range of things: roads, congestion, CO2, pollution, health effects, etc. The gas-tax aspect of charging more for heavier vehicles can be retained by cross-referencing each car by registration information.As someone from a municipal planning background, I look forward to ending the guessing planners do to model future demand, or to manage current congestion and road blockages. These on-board meters would privide a way to monitor vehicle use more, including the number of seats in use (since vehicle utility is lowest when the roads are most congested), just a smart-cards replacing monthly passes allows better tracking of use by transit authorities.And finally, one of the things that makes road-building costs go up is the fact that much _re_building is needed, as the system that gas taxes goes for is reaching 50 years of age, the time when bridges and overpass replacements are needed. But suburbanization and ex-urbanization continue to require road expansion at the same time.
Further to my previous post, I have just come across an example of tracking people as they move throughout the day:http://senseable.mit.edu/realtimerome/It shows how much can be done now, but this is still not quite what I envision.Ottawa
Roy from Springfield is on point. However, if Rep Moeller instead proposed a tax on shipping refined products to any state that does not have the same standards as Washington, he’s on safer ground. One example: any state that has not passed the California Low Emissions Vehicle (LEV) standard would have to pay a tax. WA has such as standard, as does OR (and of course California). Such a standard would not run afoul of the constitution like the existing proposal.