Keep your government hands off my cheap gas

We’re under siege here in Boston, where 53 inches of snow has fallen so far this winter (including more than 40 inches in one record-shattering week). There have been the usual arguments over whether the streets are being plowed quickly enough and whether the city should respect the Boston tradition of “space savers” in dug-out parking spaces on public property. But the biggest story has been the sick-elephant collapse of the MBTA, metro Boston’s public transit system, with cold weather knocking out scores of ancient trains and buses. The “T” is a “Textbook Case of Civic Dysfunction,” writes CommonWealth magazine’s Gabrielle Gurley, thanks to the state legislature’s habit of repeatedly putting off decisions on how to fund basic maintenance.

The fiasco has reopened debate about how best to fund our transportation infrastructure, and that’s a question that the entire country likes to hurry past.

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The maintenance of not only public transit, but also roads and bridges, has long been a nuisance for budget writers in Washington and in state capitals. Legislators don’t get a thrill from appropriating money to fix rather than build things; there’s not much political value to bringing a ribbon and giant pair of scissors to a bus yard where workers are replacing brake pads. The default way to fund transportation maintenance at both the federal and state levels is the gas tax, which is unpopular with voters across the ideological spectrum.

Writing at the Smart Growth for Conservatives website, Michael Lewyn points to a 2013 national poll that found only 29 percent of all respondents (and 40 percent of Democrats) “would support a state law that would increase the gas tax by up to 20 cents a gallon, with the new gas money going to improve roads and bridges and build more mass transportation in your state.” (See “Don’t Blame the Koch Brothers (for Low Gas Taxes).”) In blue Massachusetts, voters last fall repealed a law that automatically raised the gas tax to keep up with inflation. The MBTA and the state highway department surely wish Election Day could have been postponed to the first week in February.

The victorious Republican candidate for governor, Charlie Baker, opposed tying the gas to inflation and is now balking at any financial rescue of the MBTA, saying he doesn’t want to “just automatically press the revenue button” and even proposing to cut spending on transportation.

Maryland also went Republican last fall, electing Republican Larry Hogan as governor in an upset attributed to anti-tax sentiment, and Hogan wants to repeal that state’s law automatically tying the gas tax to inflation. He calls the tax regressive—true in that it’s felt the most by low-income households, many with workers who have no choice but to drive long distances to their jobs—and a cop-out for legislators. (“Marylanders deserve the transparency to know how their elected leaders vote every time the state takes a bigger share of their hard-earned tax dollars.”)

In Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker is calling for more transportation spending, but he wants to borrow the money instead of raising the state gas tax and getting pummeled for it in the GOP primaries if he runs for president. He has reason to worry: Jeb Bush’s father, the first in the family to become president, famously attacked Bob Dole in 1988 as being soft on taxes, and Jeb would surely repeat the play next year. Another possible Republican contender, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, may have no choice but to approve a gas-tax increase, thanks to stories about crumbling bridges in his state, but he’s looking to minimize the political damage by cutting other taxes at the same time. (Christie has already struggled over a proposed new tunnel for commuter rail between New Jersey and New York, killing the idea in 2010 as too expensive before reconsidering the project this year.)

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton must be glad she’s not running a state with cracked roads or rusty trains right now, but there’s no reason to believe she’d be a profile in courage on this issue. When running against Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries, she advocated a suspension of the federal gas tax (a “holiday”), to the chagrin of economists and congressional Democrats.

Automobile driving is one of the most cherished aspects of individual choice in America, along with gun ownership and, to a small minority, not vaccinating one’s children against infectious diseases. We grudgingly put up with speed limits, as long as they’re not too low, but there’s a visceral opposition to the idea of putting a financial penalty on our God-given right to burn fuel. When gas prices are high, any tax seems excessive, and when they’re low, it seems mean for the government to take away our good fortune.

Admittedly, the gas tax is not an ideal funding mechanism for our roads and transit systems. As noted above, the tax hits the working class the hardest, and the unpredictability of its revenue makes long-range planning difficult. (One perverse effect of the gas tax is that if people drive less, public transit will suffer.) But politicians prefer “user fees” to raising revenue through income or corporate taxes, so the gas tax may still be the best option for repairing our infrastructure. That, and praying for milder weather.

Map from USA Today.

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