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PERSPECTIVE

Raise the Gas Tax (Seriously)

In this era of out-of-control oil prices? Sounds nuts, but it's not as crazy as you might think.

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Phil Primack
March 9, 2008

Yes, the price was down a dime, but no one was pumping for joy at the Irving gas station in North Andover. "Gas prices are killing me," says Mary from Bradford. Think the price will go back up? "Of course it will," she says, as the gauge cha-chinged past $25. "Doesn't it always?"

We've become immune - anesthetized may be the better word - to high gas prices. Two bucks a gallon, so recently unthinkable, is now recalled with nostalgia. We write off the high prices to OPEC, SUVs, refinery breakdowns, or good old price gouging. But what if a gas price increase wasn't due to external factors, but because Massachusetts raised its tax on gasoline by, say, a dime or so a gallon? "You've got to be kidding," Mary says. "Who could afford that now?"

In a state with a slumping economy and where support for higher taxes equates to opposition to motherhood, that's not a surprising reaction. It may seem politically safe to hike the cigarette tax (an idea suggested by House Speaker Sal DiMasi), which has risen three times by a total of 75 cents since 1993. True, that's a regressive levy in that it hits lower-income smokers the hardest, but hey, people shouldn't be smoking anyway. But raising the portion of the state gasoline tax that's used for transportation, which has been fixed at 21 cents a gallon since 1991, remains a nonstarter on Beacon Hill, even as Governor Deval Patrick and others bemoan how crumbling roads and bridges threaten not only public safety, but economic growth. "Just to maintain our transportation system exceeds the anticipated resources available by $15 billion to $19 billion," warned the Massachusetts Transportation Finance Commission last year. And funding for new projects? Better hope to hit it big at all those slot machines if you expect to see the Green Line reach Medford.

Almost all revenues from the gas tax, about $600 million last year, support transportation spending. But as infrastructure costs skyrocket, inflation has tanked the real value of the gas tax. What was 21 cents a gallon in 1991 is now worth less than 14 cents. The transportation commission proposed an 11.5 cent increase, with subsequent hikes tied to inflation. The governor said no, preferring his casino option. Other legislative leaders have generally said nothing.

What they should say is that raising the gas tax makes solid economic and business sense. Those who receive the benefits - safer bridges, smoother roads, easier commuting - pay the costs for a tax that is, in essence, a user fee. Because gasoline consumption is what economists call inelastic - people buy it even if the price goes up - it is a relatively stable revenue stream, unlike, say, casinos. Also unlike casinos, the gas tax requires no new regulatory bureaucracy. And because it goes directly to transportation, the gas tax multiplies into good jobs for construction workers and others, even as infrastructure improvements boost the state's business climate. Even at 35 cents a gallon, the gasoline tax here would still be less than in Connecticut and New York, though it would be higher than in other bordering states.

The gas tax does have regressive implications. It would disproportionately hit lower-income drivers and Western Massachusetts residents and others with limited public transit alternatives. But that real negative must be weighed against the "public good" of a better and safer infrastructure. And if higher prices mean people drive less, that's good for the state's carbon footprint.

To sell the deal, political leaders should revive that term made infamous by Al Gore and guarantee that gas tax revenues will go into a "lockbox" - to be used only for transportation purposes. Not for deficit reduction. Not for public employee benefits. Not for that lovely museum in my district. Every year, the state should publish exactly what projects were financed with gas tax proceeds.

Ironically, an 11-cent increase now would hardly be noticed, were it not for the talk-show frenzy it would likely ignite. But even Mary from Bradford cooled down after making the tax-and-benefit connection. "When I drive over some of these bridges," she says, "I think about what happened in Minneapolis."

For an average driver, an 11-cent increase would cost about $65 a year. That's not much for a special kind of public safety insurance.

Phil Primack is a freelance writer in Medford. E-mail comments to magazine@globe.com.

(Illustration by Alex Nabaum)

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