Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Transportation Study 3A: Raising the Gas Tax

There are approximately 3 schools of thought as to how to improve the national infrastructure. The first is to increase the gas tax. The Governor of Minnesota is not vetoing the gas tax this time around, so that will likely increase funding. This article from The Washington Post deals with the issues related to the struggle over the gas tax in Virginia. It notes, among other things, how a gas tax is the most direct way to tax people who use the state's roads.

Newspaper: Washington Post
Date: 8/23/07
Byline: Tim Craig, Washingtono Post Staff Writer
Section: VA04
What Politicking Has to Do With the Price of Gas

RICHMOND-A lot has happened in the past month to change the price of gas.

In early August, as the summer travel season began to wane, gas prices dropped to $2.75 a gallon.

But last week prices briefly spiked to $2.90 a gallon because Hurricane Dean posed a threat to oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. With Dean now headed to Mexico, gas has dropped to $2.65 a gallon.

Next month, however, the price of gas could be as low as $2.50 a gallon or as high as $3.50 a gallon, depending on any number of meteorological, political or economic conditions.

The fluctuations are so dizzying that most consumers might never have noticed if Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and the Republican-controlled General Assembly raised the gas tax to build more roads.

Oh, how some members of the General Assembly up for reelection Nov. 6 wish they had done just that.

Instead, they are left to defend the abusive-driver fees, while Virginia's 17.5-cents-a-gallon gas tax hasn't been raised since 1986.

Afraid of being labeled "tax-raisers" -- a potentially insurmountable obstacle in a GOP primary -- the Republican-controlled House of Delegates ruled out a statewide tax increase to pay for transportation.

In a 2005 Washington Post poll, the public backed the GOP's opposition to higher gas taxes by nearly 2 to 1.

Kaine, who was eager to put the transportation fight behind him, went along with the GOP. Kaine and the Republicans instead crafted a transportation funding plan that includes regional taxing districts in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. In Northern Virginia, taxes on the sale of a residence, auto repairs, rental cars, hotel rooms and commercial property might soon be increasing.

And bad drivers across the state could be hit with those controversial fees on felony and misdemeanor driving convictions, including driving more than 20 mph over the speed limit. Fees can run as high as $3,000 for certain offenses.

The abusive-driver fees were designed to raise $65 million annually for transportation. A 1-cent increase on the gas tax would have generated $50 million annually.

A gas tax also would apply to out-of-state motorists, including many of the trucks on interstates 95 and 81 that do the most damage to the roads. Kaine excluded out-of-state motorists from the abusive-driver fees, a decision that he and GOP legislators are vowing to reverse when the General Assembly convenes in January.

But the controversy and questions about the fees are enough to cause a growing number of legislators to second-guess the General Assembly's decision not to raise the gas tax.

"Most people would be very happy to add a penny to the gas tax rather than deal with these abuser fees," state Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R-Fairfax) said recently.

Devolites Davis, who voted for the transportation plan but has since come out against the abusive-driver fees, is probably speaking for anyone who has ever sped on I-95.

If the state raised the gas tax by a dime, people who use 20 gallons of gas a week would pay an additional $104 yearly.

They could drive for a decade and still pay less than they would if they -- or their children -- were convicted once for reckless driving, which carries a $1,150 abusive-driver fee on top of a fine and court costs.

As some lawmakers point out, a 10-cent increase in the gas tax would raise half as much as the recently approved $1 billion a year transportation plan. And a 10-cent increase would also have made Virginia's gas tax one of the highest in the nation.

But it still would have been comparable to neighboring North Carolina's 26.5-cent rate. Maryland's gas tax is 23.5 cents a gallon.

Several anti-tax activists hinted last week that they would have preferred a debate over the gas tax instead of the abusive-driver fees.

"Our leaders in the General Assembly have been playing games with voters," said Paul Jost, chairman of the Virginia Club for Growth, an anti-tax group. Jost and 17 other conservatives are challenging the constitutionality of the transportation plan in court, alleging that the state can make the courts collect what amounts to a tax. Jost says he would have opposed a gas tax increase. But he conceded it would have been nearly impossible for him and other conservatives to challenge whether it was constitutional.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a conservative Republican, said this month that he will consider increasing that state's 20-cent gas tax to help repair infrastructure after the bridge collapse in Minneapolis.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) is also considering increasing that state's gas tax to address transportation needs.

In Virginia, instead of defending a gas tax increase, some legislators are squirming over the public outcry over the abusive-driver fees. If there is any doubt the abusive-driver fees are making politicians nervous, look at Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William).

Lingamfelter's position on the abusive-driver fees -- he supported them but is now calling for their repeal -- has generated numerous angry letters to the Potomac News, a daily newspaper serving Prince William. The paper's editorial board struck back: "This is not the kind of representative voters should want representing them."

Lingamfelter, from a Republican-leaning district, isn't taking any chances.
Yesterday, he was scheduled to appear at a news conference to unveil several bills to combat domestic violence, though the legislative session is four months away.

Welcome to what is shaping up an abusive-driver-fee driven election year.
The elections probably will prompt a debate, particularly in congested Northern Virginia, about whether an increase in the gas tax is a better way to pay for transportation. The conventional wisdom about supporting a gas tax increase in an election year might no longer be valid.
What is that price of gas again?