July 04, 2013
sympathy for Jay Inslee.
He didn’t get his tax hike.
The Evergreen State’s governor considers
it a “dang shame” that Washington
failed to make driving more expensive. A few months ago, a higher gas tax seemed
certain. Inslee, “environmentalists,” unions, and “business” (true to
form) were on board. But as legislators prepared to leave Olympia at the
close of 2013’s second special
session, the votes weren’t there.
states have entered a new fiscal year. Several eschewed gas-tax hikes that,
in the winter, looked likely. Unfortunately, motorists in Maryland
(12.1¢), Wyoming (10¢), California
(3.5¢), and Kentucky
(2.4¢) weren’t so lucky. Connecticut
raised its “Petroleum Products Gross Earnings Tax,” which boosted its levy by
several cents. Vermont’s
May hike, Governing respectfully reported, was divided “evenly
between a traditional per-gallon tax and a percentage tax assessed at the
Kentucky doesn’t have much in common with California. A case can
be made that Wyoming and Vermont aren’t on the same planet. But anyone
who monitors transportation policy understands that two types of politicians
favor gas-tax increases: 1) Democrats and 2) Republicans. In regular displays
of bipartisan boneheadedness, governors and state legislators -- even during
the last decade, when the price of petroleum has soared and the economy has
staggered -- pursue “revenue” rather than reform.
justification for filching drivers during fill-ups is the “infrastructure
crisis.” Pols, bureaucrats, taxpayer-subsidized
“economists,” construction unions, civil
engineers, and lazy media figures insist that the nation is falling apart.
outgoing U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood claimed
in February, “is one big pothole right now.”
Reason Foundation’s annual look at the
states’ management of roads, released a few days ago, explained that while
it is “widely believed that the U.S.
highway system is crumbling, objective data tell a different story.” Of the
more than 16,000 miles of urban interstates, just 809 miles are rated in poor
condition. Only 498 miles of the nearly 30,000 miles of rural interstates are subpar.
Traffic is a vexing
problem in spots, such as California’s major
cities, the Northeast Corridor, Chicago, Atlanta, and Seattle.
But on the whole, average
commuting times have flatlined in the
last decade -- a pattern that is likely to continue, with the growth of
telecommuting, employers relocating to suburbs and exurbs, a flaccid
economy, and an aging population.
Contrary to breathless
press accounts, bridges are not, as transportation
analyst Randal O’Toole characterized the hype, “failing on almost a daily
basis.” The Cato Institute scholar observed that last year, “more than 34,000
people died in traffic accidents. Virtually none of them died due to a
fracture-critical bridge failure.” In the last two decades, “the number of
structurally deficient bridges has declined by 44 percent … even as the total
number of highway bridges increased from 572,000 to 607,000.”
researchers documented, in 2009, more than $117 billion was spent on state-run
roads, and the “overall condition” of the system “was in the best shape ever.”
behind the constant pressure to increase gas taxes?
First, while a
state’s gas tax is usually referred to as a “user fee,” much of the revenue it
raises never makes it to highways. Drivers are dunned for thousands of projects
unconnected to congestion relief. For pols and other mouthpieces for “public
investments,” there’s always another choo-choo line, bicycle path, or
“transit-oriented development” to build.
states make inexcusably inefficient use of motorists’ largesse. Reason’s analysis
revealed a nauseating example when it scrutinized “main-office and regional-office
costs, research, planning and similar activities.” At $81,249 per mile, “administrative
disbursements” in Connecticut were 126 times greater than in Kentucky, the state that
performed best in the category. Conferences and “action plans” aren’t cheap. (Neither
are no-show jobs for the politically connected.) Prevailing-wage laws and sloppy
contractor oversight also contribute to runaway expenses.
culprit behind gas-tax mania is a failure of vision. A few states have
transportation experiments, but much more is possible. When drivers’ needs
are met by profit-motivated entities, rather than vote-buying pols, costs fall
and performance rises.
If you log a
lot of hours behind the wheel, and live in a state that can’t stop raising its
gas tax, there are escape options. Not surprisingly, several of Reason’s top
performers impose light fuel levies. States to consider include Idaho,
South Carolina, and Virginia.
In March, a
poll found that 72 percent of
Washingtonians opposed a gas-tax hike. Taxpayers, one suspects, have a
different take on Governor Inslee’s “dang shame.”
D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.
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