Should the politicians raise the gas tax?

May 2, 2008 9:51:23 AM PDT
Go to any gas station across America today, and you would be hard-pressed to find a smile. With gasoline prices at an all-time high, more and more motorists are seeing a larger and larger chunk of their paychecks go into their gas tanks.

So it is no surprise that two of the three presidential candidates -- Republican John McCain and Democrat Hillary Clinton -- are campaigning on a plan to halt the federal gas tax of 18.4 cents a gallon for the peak summer driving season.

But what about actually increasing the gas tax?

That might not be the most popular idea with gas approaching $4 a gallon, but the idea is floating around -- albeit quietly -- in some corners.

A higher gas tax would provide more money for better roads, improved mass transit and, in theory, would lower the number of drivers to the benefit of the environment.

Still, that doesn't necessarily make it a popular topic.

In Virginia, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine is looking for a way to fund much-needed highway repairs and construction. The governor, a Democrat, plans to call state lawmakers into a special session to find the money.

One option: Increase the state's 17.5 cent-a-gallon gas tax.

"He's not ruling it out, and he's not supporting it," Kaine's spokesman Gordon Hickey told ABC News. "It is one of several issues out there being considered."

Earlier in the week, Kaine said during an interview with a Washington, D.C., area radio station: "All options are on the table."

It doesn't take a pollster to tell you that such a plan might not sit well with voters.

"It's fairly clear that most people don't like paying taxes," Hickey said. "But Virginians aren't stupid. They know that we need to fix the roads. They know that we need to keep the bridges in good repair."

Kaine plans to release a specific transportation funding plan within the next week and a half. Hickey said that motorists in the northern part of the state are sitting in their cars for two hours for a trip that should only take 30 minutes.

"It's not good for the economy, it's not good for the environment to be sitting still, running a car," he said. "It's not good for their pocketbook because they're burning gas and not going anywhere. While people don't like paying taxes, people also like having efficient transportation systems."

One other car-related option for the governor is to increase the sales tax on cars. Virginia has a state sales tax of 5 percent, but cars are taxed only at 3 percent. Kaine has long believed that car buyers should pay the same tax rate, but his past attempts to make that happen have not made it out of a House committee.

Other political leaders are also investigating ways to tax those who drive.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been pushing for two years for a congestion pricing program. Drivers entering the center of the city during rush hour would be charged $8; trucks would be charged $21.

The money would be used to improve the city's public transit system. But the state's legislature has killed the plan two years running.

Bloomberg's plan is modeled on a similar one in London that supporters say has reduced traffic in the city center.

Dave Hamilton, director of global energy programs for the Sierra Club, the environmental organization, said there is a logical connection between using higher gas taxes to pay for road construction.

"There's probably no better way to target the beneficiaries of road expenditures than to raise the gas tax," Hamilton said. "The rising price of gas is reflecting the real cost of driving, so we are accounting for the economical and environmental cost of driving."

As for the idea of lowering the gas tax -- even temporarily -- Hamilton said there is no guarantee prices would actually be lower at the pump.

"Who says the oil companies or the distributors or the refiners are actually going to pass [the savings] on," he said.

Typically, the higher the price of something, the less people buy of it. With gas, that is not always the case; people do use less gas but not significantly less.

"You get a lot of anger, but you don't get a lot of changed behavior," Hamilton said. "The integration of transportation-at-will is very complete in both the American society and psyche."

So will the American public be hearing calls for a higher gas tax anytime soon?

Probably not.

"The political appeal candidates have found in lowering gas taxes," Hamilton said, "is much more indicative of where the political current is than the idea that we're going to inflict so much pain on the American public that they will have to drive less."