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Posts from the "Gas Tax" Category

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The Hidden Gas Tax That Doesn’t Exist

GasTaxMobileBillboardYou may have seen the ads on Facebook, or on one of the roving billboards being pulled by a gasoline-powered truck. They warned darkly of a coming “hidden tax” on fuel that was so hidden nobody in the media was talking about it. You may have wondered what it meant, even as the ads urged you to sign a petition today.

Last week, the oil-industry-backed effort to get people riled up about the “coming hidden gas tax” delivered its petition [PDF] to the California Air Resources Board’s monthly meeting in Diamond Bar.

The California Drivers Alliance gathered a whopping 115,000 signatures, and “dozens” of people showed up to deliver them. It urges the Air Resources Board to delay its “plan to increase fuel prices next year” and charges that the agency has been “unresponsive” and “has not even put this far-reaching policy on its agenda for public discussion.”

Not a word of which is true.

There is no “hidden gas tax” that will suddenly come into being in January. The Air Resources Board has no “plan to increase fuel prices,” nor could it do so. The only change coming is that transportation fuels will become subject to California’s cap-and-trade system.

That means that distributors and transporters of fuels must either 1) comply with requirements to produce no more than a certain amount of greenhouse gas emissions (the “cap” on emissions), or 2) buy enough “pollution credits” from the state to “meet” the cap. This is the “trade” part of the system.

The EPA estimates that transportation contributes a quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions in the country.

To adopt the industry’s tactic of endless repetition: “There is no ‘hidden tax,’ or any other tax associated with [California climate change law A.B. 32] programs,” according to a written statement from Dave Clegern of the Air Resources Board. “There is simply a market mechanism, which industry preferred, to allow businesses to spread their emission reductions between now and 2020 . . . instead of having to make those greenhouse gas reductions all at once.”

The Air Resources Board knows that the industry prefers this method because it has said so. “The oil industry and dealers were at the table through this whole process, and have been aware this coverage was coming for at least five years,” wrote Clegern.

In official comments submitted to the Board in 2011, the industry’s trade group, the Western States Petroleum Association, wrote: “WSPA reiterates its support for the Cap and Trade program and a market-based approach to implementing AB 32.” [PDF]

Read more…

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Thoughts at a Workshop On Replacing CA’s Gas Tax With a Mileage Fee

In 2017, California plans to pilot a new mileage-based Road User Charge designed to potentially replace the current state gas tax. Photo Wikimedia

Earlier this week, I attended a California Sustainable Transportation Funding Workshop, hosted by Caltrans, Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), the California Transportation Commission (CTC), and the Mileage-Based User Fee Alliance (MBUFA). The half-day program focused on how the state of California could shift from our current gas tax funding stream to one based on a per-mile fee.

Let me first say that I usually mostly hang out with a bunch of left-of-center city people like me; we get around mostly by bicycling and walking. My friends and colleagues tend to support the idea of a per-mile fee, because we expect that it could help motivate people to drive less, and use other modes more.

This workshop wasn’t populated by a bunch of people like me. I don’t think anyone else arrived there by bicycle. As far as I could tell, it was primarily people who are more mainstream: people who drive and who, for the foreseeable future, expect our car-centric transportation system to look more or less like it does now. Among the program’s sponsors was the libertarian Reason Foundation.

What was interesting about the workshop was where the left and the right agreed: gas tax revenues aren’t enough to cover transportation infrastructure costs, and per-mile fees could work better. Similar right-left agreements occur with some Shoup-inspired parking reforms and Express Lane toll programs.

California's Gas Tax

In 1994, California’s Gas Tax was set at 18 cents per gallon. It remains unchanged today, but, due to inflation, that 18 cents is now worth about 11 cents. Graph via Caltrans

Speakers at the conference set the stage by describing the situation, which they described as “The Federal & California Financial Cliff.” The federal gas tax is 18.4 cents per gallon. The California gas tax is an additional 18 cents per gallon. These amounts were set in the early 1990s. Unlike percentage-based sales taxes, which fluctuate with price changes, the gas tax remains at a flat rate. Since the ’90s, inflation has effectively reduced California’s gas tax to its lowest inflation-adjusted level since California gas taxes began in 1923.

Gas taxes are dedicated to be spent on transportation only. As the gas taxes lose value over time, governmental transportation budgets are increasingly subsidized by other taxes paid by everyone, including sales taxes, property taxes, etc. Recent estimates show that only about half of overall transportation funding is paid for by dedicated gas tax revenues. To some extent, this is fair: even non-drivers derive some benefits from highways, because everyone buys goods shipped by truck. The unfair aspect of this system is that non-drivers’ taxes go, in part, to freeways that non-drivers do not use.

Transportation leaders are generally aware that general funds subsidize transportation expenditures, but many drivers assume that driving-based taxes are what pays for roads. Many drivers, though already subsidized by non-drivers, still think they’re paying too much.

There are at least three more factors that influence the gas-tax-income vs. transportation-expenditures mismatch.  Read more…

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California Legislation Watch: Weekly Update

Screen Shot 2014-05-02 at 4.34.24 PM

The California Legislature saw a lot of action in the last two weeks on bills related to sustainable transportation. The deadline to pass bills out of committee was on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, and today is the deadline for all bills to be voted on by their houses of origin. If they couldn’t pass by today from the Senate to the Assembly, or vice versa, then they died for this session.

Below are the fates of some of the bills Streetsblog has been following. There are a few other relevant bills that don’t appear here because they have already passed from their house of origin, including S.B. 1151, which would raise fines for traffic violations in school zones, and A.B. 1193, which would require Caltrans to institute standards for protected bike lanes.

A driver’s license is still more important than the safety of bicycle riders and pedestrians: A.B. 2398, Marc Levine’s (D-San Rafael) Vulnerable User Law, passed out of the Assembly Appropriations Committee last week, but not before it was amended to delete the automatic driver’s license suspension it originally called for. As it’s written now, the bill would raise fines and add a point against a driver’s record if the driver is convicted of causing bodily injury to a vulnerable road user, including bicyclists and pedestrians. The bill passed the Assembly 72-2.

At least they’ll have to stop: A.B. 1532 from Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles) also passed the Assembly, on a 74-4 vote. This bill would suspend the license of a driver convicted of leaving the scene of a crash where any person is struck, whether that person is injured or not. “Victims and families deserve to know that cowards who drive recklessly, and purposefully avoid responsibility, can no longer drive the streets,” said Gatto in a press release. “AB 1532 is a sensible fix to the law that will lead people to think twice before leaving the scene of an accident.”

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Sen. Steinberg Proposes Carbon Tax on Gas Instead of Cap-and-Trade

Estimated effect of a carbon tax on sources of United States electrical generation Source: US Energy Information Administration via wikimedia.

Estimated effect of a carbon tax on sources of United States electrical generation Source: US Energy Information Administration via wikimedia.

CA Senator Darrell Steinberg proposed a change yesterday to California’s nascent cap-and-trade program that would replace next year’s cap on fuel emissions with a per-gallon carbon tax. Steinberg called it a “broader, more stable, and more flexible” way to reduce emissions from fuels than cap-and-trade.

His proposal would apply the revenue raised from the tax towards tax relief for poor and middle-income Californians, who would feel the greatest pinch from higher gas prices. That could help defuse anger at having to pay more at the pump, while still discouraging demand for gas. “Under either [program], consumers will pay more at the pump. That’s necessary,” said Steinberg. “If carbon pricing doesn’t sting, we won’t change our habits.”

CA Senate President Pro Temp Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. Photo: Sacramento Bee

CA Senate President Pro Temp Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. Photo: Sacramento Bee

Reactions to Steinberg’s proposal so far have been mixed. The Western States Petroleum Association prefers it as “a transparent alternative” to cap-and-trade, and the Environmental Defense Fund criticized what it sees as a mid-stream switch that could “compromise” CA’s emission reduction strategies.

Stuart Cohen, executive director of TransForm, said ”we strongly believe that California is creating an excellent cap-and-trade program that is, and will work, effectively. Yet a carbon tax is an extremely clear and straightforward, and ultimately more predictable, way to approach the fuels sector.”

“If this had been offered as a serious proposal seven years ago, we would have thought it was heaven-sent,” he added. “I don’t think it makes sense to reject it outright. It’s certainly worth having the discussion” about cap-and-trade vs. a carbon tax.

John White of the Clean Power Campaign, a coalition of public interest groups working for clean fuels, says his organization has no official stance yet on the proposal. However, he said, “This is a good conversation to have. A carbon tax is a different way to do the same thing. The point of collection is also at the pump, but with cap-and-trade there’s no clear signal except for a higher price, and no predictability of what that price would be.”

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Lawmakers Score Conservative Bona Fides By Attacking Efficient Transport

Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Congressman Tom Graves (R-Georgia) have introduced a bill to eliminate federal involvement in transportation policy, which would spell disaster for funding that supports transit, biking, and walking. A largely symbolic vote in favor of “devolution” will allow Republican members of Congress to demonstrate their conservative bona fides.

Senator Mike Lee is one of 21 Republicans sponsoring a bill to eliminate the federal role in transportation. Image: ##http://blog.heritage.org/2013/11/15/changing-transportation-status-quo-empowering-states/## The Foundry##

Senator Mike Lee is one of 21 Republicans sponsoring a bill that would decimate funds for transit, biking, and walking. Image: The Foundry

The Transportation Empowerment Act (TEA) — get it? — is sponsored by 21 lawmakers, all Republicans. The Hill reports that the arch-conservative Heritage Action group will be scoring lawmakers on how they vote. The bill would reduce the federal gas tax from 18.4 cents per gallon to 3.7 cents over five years and turn all spending decisions over to state governments.

Heritage Foundation writer Emily Goff, in her report on TEA, specifically notes that the bill would decimate dedicated funds for transit, biking, and walking projects. Heritage sees that as a big plus:

Under the current highway bill, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, at least 25 percent of authorized funding for FY 2013 was diverted to non-general purpose roads and bridges. Transit, the largest diversion, received $8.5 billion, or 17 percent, of authorized funds. Other diversions include $809 million authorized for the transportation alternatives program (TAP), which pays for bicycle and nature paths, sidewalks, and community preservation activities, none of which reduce congestion or improve mobility for the motorists paying for them.

Heritage remains oddly silent on the massive subsidies that pay for roads. Nor do they seem to notice the enormous, wasteful boondoggles perpetuated routinely by states.

And Heritage doesn’t seem convinced that making transportation systems more efficient in the nation’s economic hubs, lowering the death toll from nearly 34,000 traffic fatalities per year, and reducing dependence on fossil fuels are in the national interest. Your state might not lie along a major freight corridor, but freight bottlenecks and delays cost all of us.

Conservative lawmakers have been trying unsuccessfully to enact devolution since the mid-1990s. House Transportation Committee Chair Bill Shuster (R-Pennsylvania) has made it his mission to persuade even the most conservative of Republicans that the founding fathers and free-market thinkers including Adam Smith intended a strong federal role in transportation — and he intends to keep it that way.

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Why You Should Be Angry About CA’s “Highest Gas Tax in the Country”

I know it’s tempting to gloat.

Today, newspaper headlines are blaring the news that with the newest increase in the state’s gas tax, that California now has the highest gas tax in the country.

As I said, I know it’s tempting.

But, it’s the result of bad policy. None of the money from that increased gas tax will go to fix California’s crumbling infrastructure, or restore and fund any local transit system, or paint an inch of new bike lanes. It’s all going to the general fund, thanks to Arnold Schwarzengger and a short-sighted legislature.

To balance the state budget in 2010, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed, pushed for, and eventually signed a law that changed the tax structure for gas taxes with a so-called “fuel swap.” The new tax structure eliminated the sales tax on fuel and raised the excise tax. The purpose of the change was to eliminate funds that were dedicated towards transportation from the gas tax so that the Governor could balance the state budget with fewer cuts elsewhere and no tax increases.

After years of Governors Schwarzenegger and Gray Davis “declaring a fiscal emergency” to basically rob transit operations funds that were dedicated by voters in 2002 and 2006, the State Supreme Court ruled that there had to be an actual emergency, not just a lack of political will, to declare and emergency. It was at this point, that Schwarzengger devised the “fuel swap” plan.

The program also allowed the state to raise gas taxes so that the amount collected remains static even as the amount of fuel consumed decreases. If this meant a consistent level of funding for transit and road repair projects, the program might be more popular and useful.

But it doesn’t. As George Runner, a member of the state Board of Equalization that approved today’s increase noted when he voted against it, “The goal of the fuel tax swap wasn’t good  tax policy. Instead, its sole purpose was to allow the Legislature to move more than a billion dollars in gas tax revenues into the state’s general fund.”

The plan was met with scorn by newspaperstransit advocates and environmentalists when it was proposed. Today’s news is just the by-product of that bad decision.  Read more…

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Sure, Leave Gas Tax Collection to Liberal Tax-and-Spend States Like Georgia

One nay-sayer argument against greater federal spending for transportation goes like this: “Too many faceless bureaucrats in Washington have too much control over how states spend their money. Let states raise their own revenues and spend them as they wish.”

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal wants to freeze the state gas tax. Photo: The Beacon

Besides, they say, the national government is broke. There’s no more money to spend on roads and trains.

There are a hundred reasons why leaving transportation revenue collection and spending to the states is a bad idea. First, states are in a worse fiscal crisis right now than the feds – in part because they have a balanced-budget requirement, meaning they can’t overspend their revenues in lean times. Second, just because I don’t live in Kansas or West Virginia doesn’t mean I don’t have an interest in those states’ infrastructure, when so much of what I buy rides the roads and rails of those states to reach me. And I start to care a lot about the infrastructure of New Jersey when I travel to New York from Washington.

But here’s another reason: it’s not that much easier to gain public support for raising taxes at the state or local level than at the national level.

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal is asking state legislators to approve his state gas tax freeze – saving drivers 1.6 cents a gallon, but costing the state $30 million. New York legislators have also drunk the tax-holiday Kool-Aid, despite the fact that it would cost the state $19 million over just three weekends. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick is trying to raise the gas tax, and Sen. Scott Brown is giving him a hard time about it. A Connecticut state senator is going around getting petition signatures against raising the state gas tax. Gas station owners in Carson Valley, Nevada are running their own campaign to keep the county from raising the gas tax five cents — which would just bring it on par with the neighboring county.

There is evidence that when voters know exactly what the revenues will go toward – and it will benefit them – they support higher taxes. But that doesn’t mean raising taxes is ever easy — even if it’s just to replace a federal tax that used to be in place. Once a tax is gone, you can bet people will fight against re-implementation. For proof, just look at the fight brewing over merely extending the federal gas tax that’s been in place for decades.

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Without Adequate Federal Funding, Will States Raise Their Own Gas Taxes?

Connecticut state senators just voted to increase the state gas tax by three cents. The New Hampshire House Speaker has proposed cutting theirs by five cents – but only for two months, to help drivers bear the pain of high gas prices. In Georgia, the gas tax jumps every time gas prices go up by 25 cents. And at least one U.S. Senator is suggesting that more states start taking transportation funding into their own hands.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) listens to mayors' concerns about federal funding for transportation. Photo: Alan Spearman / Commercial Appeal

After a meeting with mayors in his home state of Tennessee, where he listened as area mayors expressed concerns about the federal budget, Republican Senator Lamar Alexander said, “State and local governments will have to decide whether to have an increase in the gasoline tax.” He delivered the bitter news to the mayors that they may be getting even less money from the federal government over the next few years.

For many Republicans, that’s just as it should be. They think the federal bureaucracy is too big and more government functions should be left to the states. Alexander said that when he was governor in the eighties, he was able to fund and complete several state road projects without federal dollars.

But the mayors he spoke to were concerned. According to the Commercial Appeal, they explained that most transportation projects get 80 percent of their funding from the feds with just a 20 percent local match. They count on those federal dollars.

Alexander didn’t specify how much the state should raise the gas tax, but he indicated that tourists and truckers would “pay for a big share of it,” perhaps as a way to help local politicians sell the idea of a higher state gas tax to constituents.

Tennessee has one of the lowest gas tax rates in the country, taking into consideration the fact that sales tax is exempted on gasoline. The state gas tax is 15 cents a gallon (on top of the federal levy of 18.4 cents) but drivers essentially get back two-thirds of that cost (10 cents) since gas is exempt from sales tax. Tennessee dedicates its entire gas tax to highway-building.

Mayor Stan Joyner of Collierville, a Memphis suburb, told the Commercial Appeal he didn’t see a state gas tax hike as a solution to the funding problem. “Jiminy Christmas,” he said. “Gas is high enough and is taxed enough… If there are cuts or if they [federal officials] keep more, it puts a greater burden on us. It means we have an aging infrastructure with no funds to do anything about it.”

Donna Cooper, former secretary for policy under Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, says state gas tax increases may be warranted in states that have not been able to meet local road repair needs. “But they should not be substitutes for the continued federal role,” she said, “in collecting gas taxes sufficient to ensure that our interstate highway system and transit systems are in good repair and have sufficient capacity to meet America’s transportation needs.”

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Forty Transportation Experts, One Message

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee just spent two days listening to 40 experts from different aspects of the transportation sector and advocacy community, from engineers to environmentalists to the Tea Party. Each person had just four minutes to speak and they crammed as much as they could into their time: observations, demands, recommendations for a better transportation bill. Their ideas were widely divergent on many points, but on one, they found unity: This should not be a smaller bill than the one that came before it.

Raymond Poupore of the National Construction Alliance II asked for robust investment in infrastructure.

The specter of a new reauthorization that starves the transportation sector for the next six years has become a very real possibility, as the fact sinks in that Congress is not willing to overspend the Highway Trust Fund, and neither Congress nor the White House is willing to get behind any new revenues for the fund.

Here are just a few of their pleas for a renewed commitment to a viable funding source for transportation.

Kathy J. Caldwell, P.E., President, American Society of Civil Engineers

ASCE remains concerned with the increasing and continued deterioration of the nation’s infrastructure. In our 2009 report card, the nation’s roads received a grade of D-, bridges a C and transit a grade of D. A multiyear surface transportation bill with increased funding levels is necessary to address this documented gap.

Raymond Poupore, Executive Vice President, National Construction Alliance II

Congress should focus on shoring up the trust fund to meet the nation’s surface transportation deficiencies and revive the ailing construction economy… For Congress to enact a reauthorization that falls short of our demonstrated transportation needs would, in our judgment, lead to weaker economic recovery, persistent high unemployment in the construction sector, unstable Highway Trust Fund, more dangerous bridges and highways, and American economic vulnerability in the face of unrelenting global competition. Yet as you well know, the revenue question remains. That is most politically challenging issue facing reauthorization.

Paul Diederich, President, Industrial Builders

When Eisenhower signed the first highway bill in 1956, the user fee was three cents a gallon and a first-class postage stamp was exactly the same amount. Today the user fee stands at 18.4 cents per gallon, which is about six times the rate of 1956. On the other hand, a first-class stamp costs 44 cents, which is roughly 14 times the amount it was in 1956. It is critical that we continue to invest in our nation’s infrastructure in order to maintain the integrity of what we have as well as to improve in areas of need.

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Boxer Pushes LaHood on Financing for Transportation

Senator Barbara Boxer got down to brass tacks on transportation funding in a committee hearing yesterday, even as DOT Secretary Ray LaHood remained vague on how to pay for the president’s ambitious proposal. Boxer said she’s not in favor of raising the gas tax, but she’d like it to be indexed to inflation. “We don’t even know if the president would go that far with us,” she said, but clearly something needs to be done.

Barbara Boxer wants to see TIFIA strengthened, the gas tax indexed, and TIGER maintained. Photo: Tanya Snyder

Boxer: It’s a good news, bad news story. Good news, because people are getting better fuel economy; bad news because the Highway Trust Fund is slipping. And I’m looking for ways to get more money in there but they’re hard to come by. And because I drive a hybrid I’m not paying my fair share.

Ranking Member James Inhofe: That’s all right, you ought to see what I’m driving. We average out.

Boxer: I’m sure we average out. But you’re paying more for the roads than I am. I may be on the road as long as you are but I’m getting 50 miles to the gallon. So I’m not filling up the car and you’re paying more than I am. So it’s not fair to him [Inhofe] – I mean I think I’m wise to this, but we all should pay our fair share. So I think vehicle-miles-traveled is the way to go but I don’t seem to get much excitement when I mention it. I think we could do it easily, when you re-up your registration, this is how many miles I have now, then – but I don’t have any takers. Indexing the gas tax – indexing, not raising it – I could do that.

Boxer started the hearing with a ringing endorsement for a major expansion of the TIFIA loan program. She said both she and House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica “embrace a much more robust TIFIA program.”

She said the federal government is almost entirely shielded from risk with TIFIA. She alluded to the leveraging that is possible when federal funds are used right, using as an example the Crenshaw/LAX Light Rail project in Los Angeles, which made more than $500 million available at a cost of just $20 million to the federal government.

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