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The Gas Tax
Is Not A User Fee

Payment of gasoline taxes and use of the interstate highways system are too divorced from each other for the consumer to feel they are actually making an active choice to pay and use the highway.

What is the choice? I get on the entrance ramp, drive down the highway, and get off at the exit ramp. Nobody asked me for any money. I always think of highways as being free to use. How about you? And yet, they are not free. Far from it. Highways cost a lot to build and a lot to maintain. That doesn't even include all the peripheral services such a police patrol and other emergency services.

Highway advocates try to claim that gasoline taxes are a "user fee". I think there is a serious problem with viewing the gasoline taxes as "user fees".

When I buy gas, the tax money is taken from me. That money is used to build and maintain highways. When I want to go somewhere, what choices am I offered? Since they used my money to build highways rather than something else, highways are the best that I am offered. I might not want to take the highway, but since that is what they built with my money, it is usually the only reasonable way to travel.

To me, this seems like a Catch-22. If the government uses the gas tax money for highways, then highways are what will be built. I'll have little choice but to use highways. To use the highway, I will have to buy gas. The government will charge me tax on the gas and apply that to the highways. And so the cycle goes on.

But what if I don't like highways? What if I don't want to use the highways? Little else has been built for most travels. Thus, I have to take the highways. Each mile I drive and every gallon of gas that I buy will be considered a vote of support by the highway lobby! This lobby will argue that every cent of the gas tax should be spent on the highway since I am using the gas to drive on the highway. But I wouldn't be driving on the highway if I were given some other reasonable choices!

This is what I would like to see. The technology does exist to do this. I think we should be given credit equal to the amount of tax that we pay on every gallon of gas that we purchase. This credit can only be used for transportation and for no other purpose. All highways should have a toll which is based on the cost of operation of that highway and the amortized cost to build the highway. Methods now exist which are already in wide use in California to collect these tolls without stopping or even slowing down to pay the toll.

People should then be given the option to spend their transportation credit any way that they want. In addition to being able to use it for highway tolls, they can also use it for mass transit, commuter rail, Amtrak, buses, ferries and any other mode of ground transportation. To make this fair, even bicycle paths should have a toll set to properly cover their costs which could be paid by these transportation credits. These credits could even be used for express buses or for participation in a van or car pool!

I think this would be a start at really pumping funds into alternate modes of transportation. It would also make people aware of the real costs of using the highways. With such a true comparison of costs, I think many people would start using the alternative and usually much more economical modes of transportation.

Each mode of transportation could use the funds received from these gas tax credits to expand and improve their infrastructure. Amtrak and commuter rail would use the funds to improve and expand their railways. Subways and ferries could use their funds to improve and expand their services. Bicycle paths could use the funds they receive to build additional paths. A large portion of the transportation credits collected by buses, van pools and car pools, as well as the highway tolls collected, would naturally go back into the highway infrastructure.

Once enough infrastructure has been built for these other transportation modes to make them truly viable alternatives to highway travel, a decrease in highway usage can be expected. This will mean that less gas is being consumed and less gas tax funds will be collected. Little by little, travelers will find they don't have enough transportation credits to pay the full fee for paying highway tolls or fares on alternative modes. That really isn't a problem. Travelers just pay the difference in cash. Since they are buying less gas, they have more cash available to pay tolls and fares. Now those are what I call true "user fees"!!!

In this manner, people are provided with a number of transportation choices and can have their funds directed to the mode of transportation they prefer to use. Each mode will receive an amount of funds comparable to the number of travelers attracted to that mode. This proposal will break the cycle of all the transportation funds going into just one mode. Thus, people won't be forced to select among alternatives where only one mode has been adequately funded and implemented.

Steve Grande

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