A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Raise the gas tax? Not if it's going to Augusta

A local transportation planner recently shared this column from Car and Driver magazine, in which a motorist calls for higher gas taxes to help promote more efficiency in automobiles. He argues, convincingly, that a higher gas tax is a more honest and effective way to wean us off of foreign oil than the federal government's fuel efficiency standards.

Others point out that raising the gas tax can also help repair our country's crumbling infrastructure, and that letting our roads deteriorate is far more expensive than paying a few extra cents at the pump.

All this is true. However, raising the Maine's gas tax will remain a political impossibility for as long as the Maine DOT continues to mismanage our gas tax revenues and our roads.

Here's why: it's awfully hard to justify asking a commuter in rural Maine to cough up an extra $100 every year to help pay for highway widenings in Portland, when Portlanders themselves don't want them. That's the main reason I would happily join the Tea Partiers to reject any new gas tax proposal that would direct new revenue into MDOT's grubby hands.

The other, larger problem is that gas taxes highlight the urban/rural divide. My wife and I might pay $35-$40 a year in Maine gas taxes. We're middle-class, comfortably employed Portlanders who just don't drive much (and when we do, we frequently save a buck by filling up in New Hampshire). A 10 cent increase in the gas tax would cost us less than $8 a year.

But what about the poor guy in Vassalboro who needs to commute 60 miles a day in his inefficient old pickup truck? He's paying over $500 a year in state gas taxes already, and a 5 cent increase would cost him $100 more. And again, to what purpose? He's seeing MDOT pour millions into the widening of Exit 7 while the roads and bridges in his hometown are falling apart.

My point is this: if transportation planners want more tax revenue, they need to stop spending millions of dollars on projects that piss people off, and start offering something of actual value.

That having been said, I'm confident that the municipalities of Greater Portland would willingly vote to pay a local-option gas tax if it were tied to a binding commitment to use the new funds for good, productive projects, like basic maintenance, improved transit, and bike/ped safety improvements.

Atlanta, Georgia just did something similar, and here's why it succeeded: it avoids the political poison of a regressive tax that disproportionately affects rural residents, it gives towns and regions more local control, and it funds infrastructure projects that people actually want (as opposed to projects that have been dreamed up in the ninth circle of Augusta).

To get there, Maine's legislators would need to pass enabling legislation, while local transportation planners draw up a politically popular plan for the additional revenue, such that local voters would actually approve the self-tax.

So who wants to get the ball rolling?

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