Valentine: Re-evaluate modern gasoline taxes

Friday, January 8, 2010

Texas is studying the possibility of changing the way it collects its gasoline tax. This is certainly nothing new but this study could have far-reaching implications for the rest of us because of the precedent it could set.

At the heart of this discussion is moving away from the gasoline tax, which in Texas has not been raised since 1991. The goal is to move to a true usage tax. In other words, drivers would be taxed based on mileage instead of gas usage. That seems to be the fair way to tax. After all, the tax ostensibly goes to maintaining and building new roads. That's part of the problem. The gas tax now goes to so many other projects that have nothing to do with roads like greenways and bike paths. Proponents of such diversions of your tax dollars make the lame excuse that bike paths entice motorists to bike to work instead of drive but there's no evidence that they do anything of the kind. Most bike usage is either leisure or for exercise.

The problem with the mileage usage tax is the way many want to verify and collect it. They want intrusive computers mandated for your car that let Big Brother know exactly how many miles you travel in a year. That same computer could also tell Big Brother where you travel each year which is none of his business.

The sensible alternative is a mileage inspection that goes along with your vehicle inspection each year. Each year at inspection you get a bill for your share of the road tax. I fill up about once per week. With a 20-gallon tank I'm using 1,040 gallons per year. The combined state and federal gas tax in my home state of Tennessee is 39.8 cents per gallon. That puts my annual gas tax at a little over $400 per year.

Now, here's where the greenies begin to scream. Those who drive a Smart Car or a Prius don't pay as much as I do in gas taxes for the same miles driven. Were we to all move to a mileage tax instead of a gas tax they would be paying more. Although that may sound unfair to them, it is the fairest of all taxes. It's a use tax. We are paying for the roads we drive on. The road doesn't care how great the gas mileage is on our car. All it knows is wear and tear. You drive 12,000 miles in a year then you pay for 12,000 miles, no matter the car.

For one of the cars I drive I make my own fuel and pay no gas tax. That's hardly fair.

Speaking of fairness, the folks in New York City will argue that it's not fair that Connecticut is getting the tax from commuters who drive daily into their city. The truth is these same commuters are probably already filling up in Connecticut because the gas tax is 10 cents cheaper than in New York. There's always going to be someone who feels slighted. However, if the object of this tax is to raise money for roads and bridges, then directly taxing those who use these services is the only fair way to do it.

But, we must be ever vigilant that these same advocates of the mileage tax aren't allowed to intrude further into our lives. Walking hand-in-hand with any revision of the gasoline tax should be an overhaul on how we spend it. If we really assessed this tax based on need we would find we probably need less of it.