(Photo: C.M. Keiner)
Editor’s note: We’re highlighting this (lightly edited) BikePortlander post as a comment of the week. It’s a doozy, but it’s provocative. The author, A.J. Zelada, is a past contributor who has volunteered as a transportation advisor for Oregon and others.
Now that Black Friday came and went, I want you to rethink the gas-tax approach to boosting active transportation revenue.
I think the gas tax is a snake eating its own tail. It undermines the serious effort we need.
Yes we want every cent. Yes, We want to reduce the number of ‘cars’ that represent 50% of all car trips taken. We know that 50% of all car trips are 3-4 miles or less. Our message is generally that if you walk or bicycle 3 miles, you are going to be healthier. That was our goal in the past. It was also known that we need to attract even more people to our bicycling and pedestrian world and we need the perception of safety for that invitation with real protected lanes. Enough of 4 types of bicyclists, on to making the demographics of people being an active type that represents the vibrancy of our society not the sedentary automobile driver going a mile to pick up supper.
1. It doesn’t make sense to me to be taking from gas revenues for some thing that we want to reduce. It’s like investing in movie theaters so we can develop a grant to stimulate independent film makers. Who would do that? In Oregon, we are a declining driving population.
2. We need to build infrastructure. We can’t be making more bicycle lanes that sandwich bicyclists and turning automobiles at intersections. What dad or mom wants to be in between cars turning across their lanes with their kid in tow or on their cargo bike? It is not inviting and ratchets down the perception of safety for the novice bicycling parent & child.
3. Our economy is changing dramatically.
Let’s look at Black Friday.
Last year, it was predicted that 45 percent of all Christmas sales were going to be on the internet. Last year, internet sales were 49 percent of all Christmas sales. Money spent at internet sites increased by 8.3 percent last year.
This year, 15 percent of all the U.S. malls closed or are to close by Dec 31st, 2015.
Fewer people are driving to the mall. No one drives to the internet to buy Stuff. But guess who delivers those consumer items? Yes: Freight. So, our decreased driving society to buy Stuff will translate into increased goods being delivered by increased freight on the road.
If you were freight and saw this pattern, one could think: I need more money for roads, especially their maintenance. And: getting cars off the road means more efficiency for delivering shipped goods.
If you were an active transportation planner, you could make the realization that we need more than trickles of dollars every two years to create a real infrastructure.
If you were an active transportation advocate, it is easy thinking I want more of my share of the declining gas tax revenue. But the irony is that you will be facing a greater adversary than ever.
Gas tax carving pits user against user, making them fiercer adversaries. Even with support of the Oregon Transportation Forum’s suggestion of more gas tax revenue going to active transportation, one needs to look more deeply. Jump ahead two months after they initiated the increased percentage of gas taxes for active transportation and read all the letters against such a measure in the submitted committee notes. One realizes the chess moves against creating active transportation infrastructure with that increased tax revenue proposal.
The current debate about Matt Garrett is interesting in this Shakespearean drama. He was directed by Gov. Kitzhaber to appoint a multi-modal person on each Area Commission for Transportation. These people on each ACT should be saying, ‘we need to spend money on moving people in a safe manner, be it sidewalk, bicycle lane, transit, rail, etc.’ Matt executed this well and promptly.
But again this ‘oomph’ died as we lost a key player, the governor. We continue to be stuck arguing over declining gas tax revenue, which are nickels and dimes in couch cushions. We have no leader that says, “Infrastructure needs passion, political will, high level personnel with history & experience of active transportation in transportation development, and long term funds.”
Having a large multi-year plan similar to the Highway Defense Act of the 1950s or even ODOT’s OTIA bond measures of the past decade could provide a decade of money that creates an active transportation infrastructure rather than throwing a dry spaghetti-stick bicycle lane here and there each biennium.
Creating a bond measure that bundles all the sidewalk needs (400 to 500 miles in Oregon) over ten years will be much more efficient use of regions’ staff time than asking them to apply five times for 20 percent of each of the projects to complete 1/5 of their whole active transportation plan. Asking for a 1 percent increase to gas tax gives you $6 million to perhaps $10 million per biennium. And what does buy? The same old spaghetti bike lanes painted white with an inch by inch infrastructural development.
Does that make the new potential user more comfortable, safer or even invited? One does not often think about Black Fridays, gas taxes, and the sad state of our political will but it is an old soup. And a new year is coming.
For more details: http://72km.org/oatia.html
AJ, what is your proposed funding source to service the debt resulting from the bond measure? A bond measure does not raise money on net – it promises future revenue will be used to pay for current projects. Especially with Oregon’s PERS difficulties, the overall state budget is going to to be under more stress in future years rather than less, even without adding substantial additional bonding to the mix.
Not that I think this is a bad idea, I just think it needs a little more development.
Here’s a PERS link.
I agree this bond is expensive money. But the role model of OTIA serves us well for the 20 or so bridges that have been rehabbed. And the consideration that all Bike Pedestrian plans get so chopped up in accomplishing such small parts….appreciate your thoughts and I only offer this as a starting point. I still feel that the money is so silo-ed and so tediously divided…it would be worth burdening the next generation with ‘compete streets, safe intersections, sequestered bike ways, etc.” Thanks. ajz
Is it expensive money? When your talking about building anything it’s always cheaper to do so now than in the future. This especially is true in government funded construction where all bids for work are legally required to be payed out at union scale.
It’s pretty safe to assume that over 20 years union scale is going to increase more than the interest rate for such a bond measure. Many don’t realize this but there is a serious lack of new blood coming into the trades right now and as supply of qualified skilled workers decrease the more the wages will raise.
As a tradesman myself, I love this…but as far as fund public projects it can, and will likely be a major issue soon. Especially if you consider some skilled trades are already below current demand right now (like mine – I get recruitment calls about every two weeks right now), let alone in 10 or twenty years.
Agreed – Larry Somers has argued this: that we are focusing too much on ‘reducing the deficit’ (which is somewhat of a mythical achievement) during a time at which our infrastructure needs attention, and the cost of borrowing money is at an all-time low (and about to begin an upward trend; though at what slope of the curve we don’t know yet).
If you consider that most US roadway infrastructure was built in the postwar economic boom with concrete and steel, it is all crumbing at about the same rate (give or take wear based on population density and route popularity), so will need replacement (with additional seismic costs) at about the same time: pretty much now. We have the opportunity to improve it as we replace it, especially in a political environment relatively amenable to ‘sharing the road’ with alternative/active transportation.
Wow. That was interesting! (Commenting mainly to drag this out into the light a bit) –Did anybody else read this?
Robert, I took you up on your dare and read it. Multiple times. And it is more of a gumbo rather than a soup. And vegetarian at that.
The author starts in the second paragraph talking about “we” and “our” and I have no idea who they mean. Are they representing some group? They don’t speak for me.
And then referring to the “the sedentary automobile driver going a mile to pick up supper” in a perjorative way. Well I’m middle aged and after bike commuting all week, driving to the store or yoga class does not make me a fat ass. It just means I’m getting old.
And what does all the mall talk have to do with Portland or Oregon?
Sure, internet sales are up. But many of us try and shop locally.
In their OATIA editorial they write; “We see a resurgence of people returning to city cores as they do not want to shop in big box stores but can shop virtually…” Is that even remotely true? People moving to the core to avoid big box stores and use Amazon prime? I thought people were moving to the core for a more convenient life style based on their values and because they like an urban core.
And also, “In my mind using gas taxes is not only investing in
movie theaters to feature more movies but is a snake eating its own tail.” This makes no sense at all. A movie theater investing in showing more movies sounds like a sound business practice.
Then I looked at their website and it looks like one person who doesn’t even live here. That probably explains the incoherency.
Since the weather is bad and I had to do laundry, it wasn’t a complete waste of time. I won’t hold it against you.
The movie theater bit was about, where would we, the public, put our investment if we liked and want _Independent movies_. The kind that show up at a mall only if they happen to win Best Picture.
I liked this article because it takes a fresh look at what we do with gas tax money. The writer means, I think, having a gas tax that goes 95% to building more roads induces demand for more private automobile operation. It doesn’t do much to get cars off the road.
He was trying to say that?!
Taxing gas: good idea. Relying on a small piece of the gas tax pie, which ‘we’ would have to fight for each year, to fund active transportation infrastructure: kind of weak. No, he didn’t mention induced demand, but it’s not a big leap. If the funding for sidewalks comes from 7% of gas tax, and I push for more gas tax because I like sidewalks, I’m trying to build a pot of money that is by law (constitution?) mostly going to roads for cars and trucks. So, let us break out the money for sidewalks, everybody likes sidewalks, right? As somebody said, interest rates are low, construction jobs are living wage, and since the projects aren’t as complicated as, say, light rail, smaller local companies can bid on them. More money stays in the community and people have a chance to start, or grow, small construction businesses.
using money (wherever it comes from) on better biking infrastructure is a definite good for the forseeable future (at some point the network will be built out and additional projects will have a much lower return on investment than current priorities have).
relying on a declining revenue stream is a bad move. I think that was a point of the article, but we should still fight for every dollar we can get
That was almost TL:DR. Needs more editing.
– Is gasoline consumption in Oregon really declining?. Sure, gasoline consumption per capita has fallen, but population has grown, so total gasoline consumption looks pretty flat. I’m eyeballing these charts for 1980-present.
– Is there a reason to expect a significant decline in gasoline consumption in coming decades? Maybe – the state’s population could shrink, fewer Oregonians could drive cars, cars could get better fuel economy. Maybe not – the state’s population could grow, we could continue driving at almost the same rate, low oil prices could favor less fuel-efficient cars. Weighing the likelihood and magnitude of those factors, but I don’t see a reason to predict a big fall in gasoline consumption for at least the coming decade.
– Since gasoline consumption is pretty stable and looks to remain at least somewhat so, it looks like a pretty suitable thing to tax!
– Should we not tax gasoline, for fear of igniting opposition to active transportation spending?. I could see that opposition’s , if the increased gas tax is earmarked mostly for active transportation (peds, bikes). But it won’t be, and shouldn’t be. Oregon has a huge backlog of repairs and replacement required for roads and bridges. Let most of the increased gas taxes be spent there, and a small percent be spent on adding active transportation infrastructure (bike lanes, sidewalks, crossings) to those roads as they are rebuilt. Even if that is just 5%, that would be far more money than is being spent on active transportation today. So maybe we should try again on the gas tax, and maybe our new Governor won’t get herself plunged into scandal and quit, paralyzing legislative agendas in the process.
– Instead of a gas tax, we are supposed to issue debt to fund active transportation investment over the next ten years?. How much are we taking: a billion dollars of debt? How will it be paid back? $1BN bond payable over 20 years is around $100MM of principal and interest payments per year, depending on interest rate). What public service budgets should we cut by $100MM for the next ten years, to pay for those sidewalks and bike lanes as well as pay interest?. Schools, transit, health, etc?. Why would you prefer to increase the state’s debt, make different public needs fight each other for money, and enrich bondholders, instead of increasing the state’s (gas) tax revenue?
Not persuaded. Gas consumption correlates closely with wear and tear on our roads, not to mention the societal damage of CO2, particulates, SOx, NOx, air toxics, road deaths and dismemberment, oil wars and obesity. Only a tax can match price to the real cost. If revenue declines, that means it’s working. If necessary, raise it or mix in other revenue sources. Gas tax is regressive, but even that isn’t reason to price gas below its real cost. It means we should focus the revenue on infrastructure inequities: our high crash corridors, and missing crossings and sidewalks, to name a few. Don’t blame the gas tax for squabbling over revenue. The grabbers will grab no matter where the money came from.
I have to say that the two pieces from Mr. Zelada we’ve seen here on bikeportland surprise me. They address interesting, even pressing issues (blame/safety/drinking, and now gas taxes/bike infrastructure) but as thoughtful as they at first seem, the pieces go off the rails almost immediately.
I know that Mr. Zelada has traveled abroad (by folding bike, even, if I remember correctly) so
+ why elide the fact that a REAL, worthy of the name, gas tax works extremely well the world over? Many of those countries with 3, 4, 8, 10x the gas tax rate we do have blindingly impressive infrastructure and much better modal share distributions than we here allow ourselves to even imagine.
+ Why pretend that our puny, pathetic, hardly worthy of the name version of the gas tax in the US and in Oregon and Multnomah County is the only relevant version to discuss?
+ Why omit the looming threats of climate change and peak (cheap) oil from this discussion? It is hard to take seriously a discussion of gas taxes in (almost) 2016 when the geopolitical not to mention biophysical repercussions of a century of fossil fuel exploitation are blowing up in our faces. Everything to do with how we get around and how we pay for it is about to change, and to focus instead on movie theaters, malls, and the internet is, frankly, obtuse.
But my special ire is reserved for this statement, Mr. Zelada’s #1
1. It doesn’t make sense to me to be taking from gas revenues for some thing that we want to reduce. It’s like investing in movie theaters so we can develop a grant to stimulate independent film makers. Who would do that?
Come again? Tell that to the Dutch, the Norwegians, the Italians, the Germans, the Danes, just about any country in the world! Pigouvian taxes are a thing, you know. The question is not whether or why to tax the thing we want less of/can’t as a society afford, but at what rate it will optimally deliver (a) reductions in that activity or (b) increase revenue. Typically it seems that with our actual experience with Pigovian taxes the governments who set the tax rates have chosen (b) over (a). Which we can argue about this preference, but even without quibbling about it this fact casts a rather dim light on Zelada’s assertion, suggests he may not actually be familiar with Pigou’s ideas, or Mary Olson’s, for that matter, Zelada’s former colleague on the OTC, who wrote: “The gas tax is a perfect tax. It’s not invasive on the person using it and it requires very little effort on the agency that depends on that money for providing services…Trying to replace that is really difficult, because anything you try to do is so much more complicated than just pulling up to the pump and paying for gas.”
I’ve linked to this before here many times. I think it is so illustrative of what Mr. Zelada doesn’t seem to understand about gas taxes; how they work; what you get in exchange if you are paying attention:
from Grist: http://grist.org/climate-energy/why-we-should-raise-the-gas-tax-and-why-we-wont/
“There is a counterintuitive relationship between gas prices and the burden they place on the average citizen’s finances: The more gas costs, the less gas people buy, and so the less they are weighed down by gas costs. Just look at this chart, courtesy of Bloomberg, which shows that the U.S. has the world’s 50th highest gasoline prices, $3.66 per gallon in September, but the fifth highest proportion of annual income spent on gas purchases. Those rankings are almost exactly reversed in European countries with high gas taxes. The Netherlands has the world’s third highest gas price, $8.89 per gallon, but the 34th highest proportion of income spent on gasoline. Italy ranks fourth highest in gas prices, $8.61 per gallon, and 38th in proportional spending on gas. Gas taxes in Italy and the Netherlands, like most of Europe, are about 10 times higher than those in the U.S. Furthermore, in a country such as Norway, where gas currently costs $10.08 per gallon, that revenue comes back to the public in the form of government programs, such as free college tuition. Lower gas consumption also means better local air quality and reduced greenhouse emissions, and more exercise and less obesity among the populace.”
It is not of course quite that simple, but still not a bad angle.
And here’s the chart from Bloomberg:
I’m not up to speed on Pigovian taxes but I would never deny that a significant tax on something discourages its use. If gas taxes went to green energy R&D, or health care, or whatever, the theory holds. As an op-ed writer recently suggested, put a floor price on gas at $X per gallon and when the market price goes down the difference goes to R&D, with my blessing!
The problem: Article IX Section 3a (1) of the Oregon Constitution, which says that gas tax revenue shall be used for “roads” and road-like things.
That’s come to mean a little bit for sidewalks and bikey things, but mostly stuff designed for motor vehicles. In our state taxing gas to moderate behavior is a poisoned policy because the money turns into lane-miles of inviting pavement. Our practice of putting some really random stuff into the constitution has turned state government into a three-legged race.
A modest thought: maybe we could dedicate gas tax to flattening and paving the entire land area of Washington County. It’s politically viable because both Multnomah and Washington County would support it, it would require a really punitive gas tax so local car use would drop radically, and with all that open surface you could suspend driving laws across the entire county.
The combination of legal pot and the Washco free-drive zone would make Oregon such a tourist destination that we could park the rest of the economy and never work again!
The solution to the hurdle you specify is to change the word from ‘road’ to ‘transportation’.
Sounds like something a well organized, policy-centric, statewide focused bike advocacy group might pursue. you know, if we had such a thing.
“I’m not up to speed on Pigovian taxes but I would never deny that a significant tax on something discourages its use. …” burchett
For a simplified explanation of that type of tax is, you’re close enough. Other examples of activities society wishes to discourage, but relies upon to help fund various parts of society’s infrastructure, are alcohol, tobacco, and gambling. One major way their relevance to the function of society differs from travel and transport by motor vehicle, is that they’re not necessary for travel.
The related conflict though, between the two as a funding source, is that if people do less of the targeted activity, the tax on it has to be adjusted to keep the amount of funds derived from it, stable. I guess if people support such adjustments, it’s a workable system. If not, it may not be a workable system.
Good stuff! Thanks
Based on my prejudiced observation,
In “Oregon” most of us vote “No” whenever there is a bond measure. We don’t even need to anything about it. We just vote “No”.
The closer you get to a population center the higher the % of “Yes” votes.
Isn’t the advantage of a gas tax is that it is in place and the rate can be inched-up locally or at the state level.
The gas tax also captures money from people who don’t buy gas directly. As the author mentions, the purchase from the internet is delivered by truck and that truck pays for gas. Same thing for a loaf of bread at your market. Consider all the vehicle miles involved with the development of that loaf. The workers in the field, Bakers at the factory, Delivery driver and the Grocer.
Where do you live?
In Portland it seems like we are much more likely to vote in most new taxes (Arts tax, Library Bonds, Parks Tax, etc.) that almost any other US city.
If anything I think the problem is that this city too often blindly votes for taxes and bonds, and then we’re on the hook for poorly planned taxes (the Arts tax is a perfect example).
Let’s have this conversation again when driving has seen 20-30% declines over at least a 10-year period, or electric cars make up more than 10% of the market. Until then, the gas tax remains the simplest and best way to fund road maintenance and smart growth projects.
Why would it magically cease to be a good method in ten years? If cars have dried up and blown away in that time (a possibility, I concede) we’ll have much bigger, much more interesting, issues to face than whether a gas tax is the best way to fund what will at that point be a vastly shrunken responsibility. What Zelada’s piece and several comments elide is that the fiscal responsibility to maintain our infrastructure and the presence of the automobile are linked. When the automobile’s (and freight’s) presence on our roads shrinks so will our need to expand, maintain, repair it. The elegance of how these pieces fit together both in a static and a dynamic view is completely missing from Zelada’s view of things, which is what is so mystifying.
Once again we have someone spouting the “gasoline consumption is falling” myth. Yes, there was a dip between 2008 and about 2011, but it’s on the rise again – not quite back to 2008 levels, but definitely higher than it was in 2012.
Check the graph and statistics from the Energy Information Administration:
The potential or actual reduction in tobacco consumption didn’t stop governments from increasing the tax on cigarettes; why should we not also increase the tax on gasoline? Both have adverse side effects. We can accomplish some good stuff with increased revenues. “Good stuff” that is funded by tobacco revenues includes actions to improve health of children who never smoked. Why not fund sidewalks, transit, and other good transportation features by taxing gasoline?
Just because consumption of something might decline doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tax it. Does the decrease in people using land lines for telephone communication mean we should give up on that revenue stream?
Vehicle miles traveled have increased sharply over the past few years.
Go to any other city than those considered “progressive” and people drive EVERYWHERE.
Consumption down over 2008 to 2011 because
1. Economic crash, large unemployment, fewer people commuting.
2. Hybrid electric vehicles.
3. Cash for clunkers, removing inefficient vehicles from the road.
4. Overall increase in mileage of most vehicles even pickups now sold
Looking at gas consumption in a vacuum is dangerous.
“Looking at gas consumption in a vacuum is dangerous.”
Are you worried about it exploding?
CAFE standards are increasing sharply every year:
By 2025 average fleet fuel economy will be mandated at ~55 mpg.
Yeah, well, CAFE standards doubled between 1978 and 1990 with very little effect on gasoline consumption. This time around it is obviously going to be different but it is always good to be careful about extrapolating from a ratio (mpg) to consumption (gallons burned).
Not sure CAFE standards matter a lot. It would depend on how it is calculated – average of models offered – or average of models sold.
So what if you have a $100K car for sale that gets 80 mph and sell 100, if 95% of the cars sold only get 20 mph (1900 cars)? Average of the two is models offered is 50 mpg, average of the 2000 sold is 23 mpg.
The CAFE standard apply only to the new cars sold. It takes a long time to raise the fuel economy of the entire vehicle fleet because cars spend decades on the road before they are finally retired.
But I think we know that that lag was not the problem (historically). Once the fleet had turned over the fuel *consumption* was still the same. What had skyrocketed was VMT.
Roads and streets being integral components of communities, it’s basically essential they be included in the design and construction of communities, regardless of to what extent people happen to use that infrastructure with motor vehicles.
The motor vehicle gas tax isn’t a stable source of income for community travel infrastructure, if the rate at which people travel by motor vehicles fluctuates…which it does. People continue to live in their communities whether they drive less or more. Accordingly, budgets for travel infrastructure, particularly where active transportation infrastructure is concerned, shouldn’t be overly dependent upon motor vehicle gas taxes.
The vision of how people travel within and beyond their communities today still doesn’t regard travel by foot and bike to be a particularly major means of practical travel. Communities today could be better suited for practical travel by foot and bike, if their infrastructure was thought of, designed, constructed and funded from this perspective.
Accomplishing that turn around in thinking though, seems to be a major hurdle. Out here in Washington County, west of Portland, there appears to be very little signs that many people are thinking of their road and street infrastructure from this perspective. So it is that well designed and located sidewalks and bike lanes, are a relatively low, low infrastructure priority, as is the funding for them.
“The motor vehicle gas tax isn’t a stable source of income for community travel infrastructure, if the rate at which people travel by motor vehicles fluctuates…which it does.”
Can you explain why this nevertheless works quite well the world over? Why the Germans and the Italians and the Norwegians and the Danes and French all keep on raising their fuel taxes higher and higher, not to mention all the other user fees related to driving, and appear to have no problem building and maintaining sparkling, cutting edge, multi-modal infrastructure? None of this whining about how it doesn’t work over there.
Now is a perfect time to raise gasoline taxes. Gas is cheap cheap – less than $2/gallon in many locations. A 10 cent per gallon increase in the price would be fairly painless. At 20 mpg, that comes to $50 for each 10,000 miles driven. At 40 mpg, it comes to $25 for 10,000 miles driven. Even poor people will not be affected much.
In much of the USA, the speed limit on freeways is 80 mph – this imposes a larger price penalty than a 10 cent per gallon tax. The penalty is on the driver in higher gasoline costs as well as on the state in higher rates of damage to highways.
BUT what are the geniuses in Salem doing? Spending $millions on “studies” about taxing cars based on miles driven – which provide no incentive to buy cars with high mpg ratings. In this article is an example using a Prius and a Ford F150 pickup:
The article admits that a Prius driver subsidizes the road usage of a Hummer. What the article fails to mention is that the F150 and the Hummer, and all other heavy vehicles, particularly trucks, do more damage to roads than lightweight vehicles. Thus, there is no line of thinking that can justify such a mileage-based tax (except on vehicles that use no gasoline) – but because the state has developed a large bureaucracy around this stupid idea the state WILL NOT let it die. YOUR Oregon government is encouraging use of low mpg vehicles which burn more fuel. Is this wise? If not, why do you vote for these idiots?
Aim high. $1 state tax.
As a target over 10 years, it could be a goal, but people do have to eat and pay bills so you need to phase it in slowly.
“Now is a perfect time to raise gasoline taxes. Gas is cheap cheap – less than $2/gallon in many locations.”
I certainly hope the people we’ve elected to be in charge of this don’t follow your advice. Although heard frequently, I find this logic offensive. It suggests that the public has a second grade math level, can be easily hornswoggled, won’t notice if we raise the tax in times of depressed gas prices. We need more than anything to have frank far-reaching, public conversations about the end of cheap oil, about climate change, about the looming end of automobility and all the subsidies that made it possible, not some sneaky insertion of a tax hike when pump prices collapse.
In reference to point #1: “It doesn’t make sense to me to be taking from gas revenues for some thing that we want to reduce. It’s like investing in movie theaters so we can develop a grant to stimulate independent film makers.”
Not sure why this is nonsensical to A.J. The concept of a “sin tax” makes lots of sense and is well founded and established. Our taxes on cigarettes and alcohol often goes to mitigate damages and costs society incurs by use (abuse?) of those products… and goes to pay for ways out of the usage. We don’t tax cigarettes and booze to “invest” in them; precisely the opposite. We know a higher price will discourage use AND fund the negative results of that use. It’s not a stretch at all to see gasoline consumption in similar vein, indeed its costs to society and the planet are arguably much larger. It’s eminently fair and reasonable that gas consumption should be made to both pay for the damage it makes and should finance sustainable alternatives to it.
The farce is our comically low gas tax rate. In more developed and mature countries (where gasoline cost is often double ours) much of that is tax. (do a quick check of gas prices just north of the border; a place with plenty of petroleum available) Users of motor vehicles are at the very least expected to not only pay their way (unlike heavily subsidized private vehicle use in the US) but also finance required infrastructure for alternatives. (mass transit, ped and bike infrastructure) If we actually practiced the “free market” we so insincerely worship and truly expected individuals to “pay their own way” gas in the US would be at least double or even triple the cost it is presently. $1 a gallon tax would begin to make a dent but of course it won’t happen.
I definitely appreciate Mr. Zelada’s thoughtful perspective – thanks AJ. I don’t agree with it though. I think many will agree that the gas tax is an inappropriate equation for funding equivalent wear and tear (it was originally flawed as it assumed linear wear correlation with weight/consumption, as well as steady state economics and automotive technologies). As a result, we’re now in a funding shortfall (at least perceived) when it comes to infrastructure repair and improvement, and looking for alternatives to increase revenue.
We’re at a unique juncture where we have bipartisan support (at least verbally) for a federal gas tax increase, along with low gas prices which are not forecast to rise any time soon. Funding for many bike/ped programs and infrastructure ultimately comes from the federal level, and this juncture is something I think we should all embrace (as drivers and pedestrians and bicyclists). What we really need to get past is the notion that using gas taxes for bike/ped infrastructure is not beneficial for drivers – quite the opposite is true! THAT is the myth that we must first move past with proper public education, and moving bike/ped funding away from gas tax coffers sends the opposite message.
Don’t be fooled – the currently proposed transportation funding includes significant chunks of money for many things entirely unrelated to fixing roads. People tend to think that’s the biggest chunk, but we’ve got high-speed rail, wireless automotive and railroad signalling, autonomous vehicle R&D, and new lighting technologies, to name a few categories. Bike/ped funding is a pretty small portion, and not nearly as competitive with the “filling potholes and adding lanes” chunk as the American public tends to believe.
Sure, people are driving to malls less, but VMT and fuel consumption correlate very tightly to one thing: impact on disposable income (or margin, for businesses dependent on such things). Further, Americans are easily persuaded to give up ‘bad habits’ with financial ‘penalties’: the bottle bill (originally) reduced litter dramatically, cigarette taxes have helped fund education and reduced American smoking to <20% of the population, and even local bag fees are encouraging people to remember to bring their reusable sacks to grocery stores. Increasing gas prices at the pump will not have the devastating effect on the economy that some wall street analysts would like you to believe, and our current state of low prices is the result of a global economic battle with our competition that will ultimately put many Americans out of work. There has to be a delicate balance, and my preference would not be for the cash subsidies that American oil companies have flat-out asked for.
Gas taxes are a less than perfect revenue source, but there are many reasons why they should be raised as soon as possible, and I think the 'pros' far outweigh the 'cons' right now.
Incidentally, Santa Clara County in California will propose a .5% sales tax increase next November in order to fund roadway projects (which includes bike/ped improvements). Frankly I think sales tax increases are the absolute worst way to fund roads, as they impact small businesses and lower employment as a result, but this is what we tend to resort to in the presence of politicians lacking the intestinal fortitude to raise gas taxes.
Looks like smoking has gone from about 40% to 20% of the population:
BUT, it isn’t clear that it was caused by higher taxes:
Based on wild swings in fuel costs over the past several years, and the resulting flat consumption rates, it appears that people will continue to buy about what they always did up to at least $4/gallon:
I think you’re right – disposable income determines our gas-buying habits more than any thing.
What I’ve gathered from the news, and talking with people, is that gas prices dropping and staying relatively low from the not so long ago four buck a gallon price, means that people feel easier about taking road trips again.
When it comes to trips people feel are essential for them to be made by motor vehicle…work, school, shopping, depending upon the individual…they will continue to budget for that means of travel.
What it’s possible to do in a positive way, in our area to reduce need and incentive to travel by motor vehicle, is difficult to be certain of. What I read and hear about, as well as see first hand in neighborhoods and communities in Beaverton and Portland, is that not nearly enough is being done in the way of planning and design, to reduce this particular need and incentive.
There are so many factors figuring into why people feel they need to travel by motor vehicle, rather than bike, walk, mass transit, that’s it’s very hard to keep track of them all and weigh the accurately against alternatives.
Fundamental to all consideration though, I think, is that active transportation infrastructure should aspire to be designed to provide people hoped to be using it, with an experience that approaches, if not exceeds, the comfort of traveling by motor vehicle.
I’m reminded of this frequently, but for me yesterday was a good example: didn’t have far to go, several miles total, but for the light job I was working on, and the route I had to go, with the rain and traffic, it was much better for me being in the comfortable, safe confines of the pickup, listening to great music, than it would have been, walking or biking.
If the major plan is to get more people out of their cars to use active transportation, then these people will need to live closer to where they work. The traffic disaster every weekday morning & night that is the I-5 commute between Clark County & Oregon (one example only) needs to stop. People’s expectations of being able to live in a nice house in the suburbs far from where they work will need to stop. Consequently, density in our city neighborhoods will have to increase. Single family houses will need to be converted to lots of apartments & condominiums.
When this occurs, the idea of more people using active transportation will be more realistic & there will be more room on the highways for the freight companies.
The commute, although unpleasant at times, isn’t that big of a deal to most folks. Most like being in their car – it’s one of the few times per day when they don’t have to answer to anyone else on the face of the planet, they get to turn up the heat to 90 if they want and rock out to their favorite music or get some free education on the local AM radio talk shows. AND if they really don’t like the commute many can go to/from work earlier or later and the traffic isn’t that bad.
More infrastructure needed for sure:
Let nature take it’s course. America doesn’t want to spend the money necessary to maintain its automobile infrastructure. So, let it collapse. Perhaps a natural catastrophe or two will hasten the process. Natural Selection doing its job. Don’t try to interfere. You won’t win.
I think you are forgetting that when you take this kind of approach,you discover that ‘America’ is not a monolithic entity: There are losers and there are winners with a fiddle-while-Rome-burns approach. It doesn’t sound like you imagine yourself to be a loser in that scenario.
All that occurs is that innocent people die, the fed steps in with borrowed money from our children and nothing is actually fixed.
“the fed steps in with borrowed money from our children”
repeating something ***deleted by moderator*** does not make it true. the usa can currently borrow for the long-term at absurdly low interest rates. now is the time to spend on infrastructure, education, and research.
I may (and probably) will be one of the losers. But what is a realistic solution to a country that can’t do anything about anything anymore? Cargo bikes to the rescue?
I guess this is where we part ways.
I would like to think that all the smart people in the room could nudge things in a better direction. Not overnight, of course, but with time and dedication and creativity.
I hear you throwing up your hands, giving up. That seems a surefire way to let someone else, most likely with deeper pockets, take over, run the show.
We’re from the government; we’re here to help:
The bottom line is this. Cars bring all manner of destruction and pollution along with their minor utility. We are taxing ourselves (or rather lack of taxing) ourselves into insolvency by subsidizing the automobile well beyond the pittance it “pays”.
When cars stop killing and maiming bikers, stops destroying the planet and ceases to create a class of entitled citizens, we can cease using the pittance of tax the car produces for a true public good which is biking and walking infra.
Tax gasoline at the state level $1 a gallon. Feds can use their portion to distribute for the public good. States can use their $1 for whatever they think is important.
While we are at it, time to rip out I-5 from 205 to 205. Let’s rip out 405 as well. Repurpose to bus/train/biking/walking use.
Regarding road damage (which is somewhat correlated with costs), it scales very non-intuitively with vehicle weight and wheels. The damage is claimed to be, per-wheel, proportional to the cube of the loading on the wheel. I.e., if you believe in perfect weight distribution, it is the cube of the vehicle weight divided by the square of the number of wheels.
What this means is that excess weight hits you very, very hard. City busses do not score well on road damage. Carpooling helps, but not if you have to upsize the vehicle — 8 people in 8 Honda Civics do less damage than one Sienna minivan with 8 people in it. 32 wheels good, 4 wheels bad.
I made a spreadsheet, you can check my work. I sorted by “damage per cargo pound” and optimistically assumed that people weigh 150lbs (I weigh roughly 50% more than that, so this seems like wishful thinking to me).
Just eyeball the exponents, there’s about a 50x jump in damage per pound from the “worst” bicycle (fat guy on a cargo bike) to the best automobile (4 150lb people carpooling in a Honda Civic).
If it needs more explanation, ask/complain, and I’ll see about adding some explanations. I added some links to data that I didn’t get from obvious places (like Wikipedia, or the MBTA Blue Book).
Clearly, we need hovercraft buses to reduce road damage.
Anecdotally, I have a friend with a small business. He doesn’t need a truck, but traded his Subaru in for a GMC Silverado because he was able to write off about $35K of it for his business last year. In January he’s trading it in for a Dodge Ram. He’s been talking about how the Subie only got ~20 MPG highway mileage and the trucks do about the same, but I doubt he gives a crap about the difference in road damage – not when the government pays him $35K/yr not to.
All studded tire users should face a huge surcharge as these users, far more than other passenger vehicle users, destroy our roads.
It still seems to me that were our elected and appointed officials to actually exercise some level of fiscal restraint and judgment, we’d have all the transpo dollars we need . However, when we have local communities spending massive amounts on consultants that duplicate staff work and mashing in diversity and inclusion staffs into every local department and spending wild amounts of marketing itself and etc., etc., etc., well, that current revenue disappears quickly. When we have the federal government funding billions every year to support local/state activities local cowboy poetry festivals and SWAT teams for the Department of Education, well, yeah, of course, real government activities don’t receive proper funding.
I really don’t want to hear anything, at all, about gas taxes or transpo bonds until our local, state, and federal government eliminate the nonsense cluttering up their budgets. More voters ought to feel this way as this irrational spending means a) you have to enact more taxes to keep paying for an ever-expanding, ever-intrusive government; or b) deprive real, core government functions of the required funding levels.
I really am so glad that ou federal government pays for local petry festivals with Chinese money or seeing the City of Portland argue that it cannot properly staff a bike theft program as the City mashes multiple inclusion/diversity offices throughout several departments. Makes sense, eh?
But, yeah, we should ask for more gas taxes or new bonds because our local, state, and federal governments are so wisely, so efficiently spending our money now, right?
Before any expanded gas tax is enacted or a bond proposed, those advocating either ought to be requires to clearly demonstrated that all other jurisdictional spending is not only serving a proper government function, but that it also absolutely critical to remain in the spending pipeline. Otherwise, you ought to be ignored.
I prefer to call it a carbon tax and the funds used to promote low carbon transportation options, MAX, bus,bikes and walking. Taxing destructive behaviors is how capitalism is suppose to work. ODOT has borrowed to the point that a large portion of new money is paying debt, not building or maintaining any infrastructure.
The gas tax CARBON TAX- works,just raise it and watch all the positive things that happen like less driving, less C02 and money for C02 reducing infrastructure.
The article was short on new ideas.
I don’t know that calling it a “carbon tax” works on a national level (i.e. as an argument to raise the federal gas tax rate). Once you step into that arena, you now have to prove that there is something worthwhile about taxing carbon output, and there’s a large segment of this population that isn’t convinced. It adds a whole new level of complexity to the argument, whereas the existing premise is based on numeric shortfalls that have a well-publicized track record (the Fed Highway Trust Fund running at a multi-billion-dollar annual shortfall since the mid-90’s, for instance, can be easily referenced).
I think the biggest argument (in addition to the funding shortfall) to remain focused on is that active transportation options offer significant benefits to both drivers and the public as a whole, and that we should continue to fund them with at least the minuscule slice of the pie that they already get.
I see some converging societal and technological factors:
() increased availability of “safer than human” self driving vehicles
() decreased cost of prior in line with Moore’s Law
() decreased Single Occupancy Vehicle use due to ease of use of self driving vehicles
() increased automobile insurance premiums for people that insist on driving manually
() prior factor further enticing automobile users to self driving systems.
() THE Preceeding leads to a continuing decline in per capita automobiles on the road in motion
() an increase in home delivery of most basic daily goods. Amazon Prime and similar grocery delivery services are finally seeing commonplace utilization after the DotCom Bust
() a single delivery vehicle the size of a FedEx or UPS parcel delivery van can easily displace from 5-100 individual SOV “errand” trips by the average person. Really depends on size of load: Walgreens prescription or CostCo dry goods haul for a family.
() then conversely companies that have been exclusively online like Amazon opening physical retail locations in dense urban markets.
At a certain point it almost makes sense for a big freight mover like Amazon or Walmart to run their own dedicated freight only Hyperloop system to move tiny expensive widgets from urban market to urban market and little self driving delivery vans (with a human that carries things to the door because that’s cheaper for now).
But I make no predictions other than this:
Short of a bolshevik revolution we are stuck with profit based corruption (Soviets had their own corruption too: maybe they were only human). Any thing that occurs will occur because it is a profitable business model. Home grocery delivery was not in the mid 90’s but is becoming so now; trends imply this will be more favorable.
Follow the money and you can see now and the future.
Agree that self driving vehicles will increase as they become available.
Self-driving cars, if they do actually reduce the cost of accidents, will drive insurance rates lower for all vehicles – not just self-driving vehicles.
Many people who cannot use single-use vehicles now may be able to do so with self-driving cars.
Doubt Moore’s law will apply to self-driving vehicles.
Doubt self driving cars will have much impact on number of vehicles on the road UNLESS they are so expensive that fewer people can afford one.
You think the Soviets might have been corrupt?
Obama, Hillary, or Sanders would do exactly the same to their opposition if their opposition did not have more guns than they do.
You think delivering a tube of tooth paste to your house has a lower carbon footprint than walking or riding your bike to the store? Think again, 80-90% of goods are more environmentally sourced by picking them up with the many low carbon alternatives to a car or FedEx trucks everywhere.
Here you are making 2 demonstrably false assumptions:
(1) Most important – most people will NEVER walk or ride a bike unless it LITERALLY is a matter of life or death. That dreamed of 20% bicycle mode share ignores how the other 80% travel. Too many people are of the “Ha! No way in HE!!” camp when asked not to drive. Any solutions that don’t account for everyone aren’t really a solution.
(2) the “only 1 small item” strawman argument does not represent the reality of how these home delivery services remain profitable. Amazon Prime has every incentive to encourage the accumulation of small items into one bulk shipment to your dwelling. If my failure to plan has made a single tube of toothpaste a critical emergency purchase then I deserve to pay extra for its expedited delivery to discourage such wasteful acts.
There are other peripheral assumptions attached flimsily to the prior assumptions that need light shone upon them:
() these home delivery services are primarily offered in dense urban areas. If your hypothetical toothpaste tube order is canceled the FedEx, UPS, DHL & USPS trucks will still have been in your neighborhood. At best you’ve cut a few dozen feet off a suburban route or only reduced the time the same vehicle would have been parked at a multi dwelling building.
() what about people without a bicycle or automobile?
() what about people that shouldn’t drive (or ride a bicycle on American roads) due to physical, neurological or prescription pharmaceutical impairment? Granny is on Percocet and muscle relaxers, her eyesight is bad and her hands shake. Might it not make sense for het NOT to drive to the pharmacy ¼ mile away?
() what about people that can’t legally drive?
(() would it be cheaper to give a repeat DUI/vehicular homicide offender free home delivery (along with a lifetime transit pass) over 24/7/365 incarceration?
You’ve presented a solution that applies narrowly to your specifically optimized lifestyle. If you suggest that your possibly superior lifestyle MUST be taken up by all you should also expect to see a very wasteful and environmentally damaging demand for pitchforks, torches and ammunition. Danger Will Robinson, Danger.
You need to show your work.
Assume the truck gets 10mpg, and travels twice as far as your trip to the grocery store to make 60 stops (assume it is a hybrid, which is a good thing for delivery trucks and cabs). Assume you biking get 600mp”g” of food, but that food cost 2 units of energy to produce each unit that you eat (this is reasonable, though the range of possible answers is huge).
So, you do one delivery, and you have 30x the fuel efficiency of that truck for your trip.
But the truck does 60 deliveries in only double the miles, so it has 30x the delivery efficiency per mile.
I.e., they’re equal.
Obviously I concocted this example, and I’m a little weak on the miles needed for 60 stops, but these are not crazy numbers.
Note, however, that if you’re talking about road damage, the bicycle wins handily (see spreadsheet linked from other comment). A step van does between 100 and 1000 times as much road damage PER POUND of cargo, and you drive it farther. Cubic functions are not friendly.
When the tax pushes gaa over 18 bucks gallon.. Then cars can have anything over 18.
Just a side note here, but at the Freewheel Winter Bike Expo that I attended this weekend, the BikeMN representative mentioned they were lobbying for a 0.5% tax on bikes and bike related services that
Just a side note here, but at the Freewheel Winter Bike Expo that I attended this weekend, the BikeMN representative mentioned they were lobbying for a 0.5% tax on bike equipment and bike related services that would go into a bike infrastructure fund. This would be above and beyond funding via other mechanisms.
Taxing has the net effect of getting less if the taxed item.
Completely short sighted.
Please explain, then, how Germany is able to raise ~53 billion Euros every year, through fuel and car taxes and fees, fully three times more money than they need to build and maintain a world-class transportation system, the kind we here in this country can scarcely imagine?
With all due respect, your comment is what is short-sighted.
Again, taxing a singular item has the net effect of getting less of that item depending on the elasticity if that item. Bikes are fairly elastic…fuel is not.
Top three items that are inelastic:
So, tax bikes and get less of them. 9watts I respect your opinions and enjoyed your points on the Sprocket Podcast. Please don’t misinterpret my point. Elasticity is why we can tax the heck out of gas and continue to beat it like a runner chicken and reap massive taxes.
Ah, now I see. This whole article and comment thread has been about taxing gasoline, so when I read the little cue above your comment being about taxing bikes I didn’t catch it. Sorry about that.
I agree on taxing carbon and pollution, though the gas tax doesn’t do that directly (unfortunately). I was mentioning this (a bike, bike component and services tax) as an example of another funding stream. 1/2 of percent doesn’t seem like it would make or break any bike purchase decision, at a $1000, its $5 of tax. If that $5 means you can afford that bike, you shouldn’t be buying the bike anyway.
I agree with many of the commenters here: the gas tax should be funding not roads (that increasing gas expenditures and cause a whole host of issues), but funding alternates to driving gas powered automobiles.