Don't like potholes? Pony up

Raise the gas tax to pay for a smoother ride

March 06, 2011|By Dan Rodricks

As my car bounces and rattles over yet another pothole, and I look up at the price of a gallon of regular gasoline — about $3.30 — I have the following question: Is anybody ticked off about this? We were paying about $2.70 a year ago. I mean, I understand there has been unrest in North Africa and the Middle East, and this time there's something seismic going on. But when the price at the pump goes up like this, I don't believe it's because of anything real, such as a drop in the production of crude in Libya. The price just goes up because of "market fears" and the exploitative habits of sheikhs and sharks. You know it. I know it. Revolution in the Arab world is just another excuse.

And what do we do? We just grumble and bear it. There's a Rasmussen poll out showing that Americans expect gasoline prices to rise north of $5 by summer, and is anyone surprised to hear that?

In Baltimore, we understand market fears, especially in winter, when snow happens: The mere rumor of falling frozen particulate causes a panic in the milk-bread-toilet paper market. But if the manager of a supermarket were to suddenly jack up the prices of those items, elderly women would beat him with their canes. I'm not saying it doesn't happen in places, but generally speaking, if it did, Baltimoreans would pummel the profiteer.

Do we do this with gasoline? No. We just groan and fill up.

We don't really get upset unless some public servant raises the prospect of raising the tax on gasoline. That's when people go apoplectic, especially Republicans. They get huffy when someone talks about raising the gasoline tax to pay for the patching of potholes or funding the expansion of public transportation that this country so sorely needs. They have little to say in the way of criticism of the oil companies when they gouge us because of "market fears," but they make all manner of dire predictions for the economy if someone proposes raising the gasoline tax, even a little bit.

This happens in Congress, and it happens in the states.

In Maryland, the motor fuel tax has remained frozen at 23.5 cents a gallon since 1992. In that time, the biggest transportation project in the state has been a new road — the $2.6 billion Intercounty Connector — and not new rail lines. Driving conditions have gotten worse. Workers here have one of the longest average daily commutes in the nation.

Until recently, the politicians managed to keep the roads patched. But since the Great Recession, they've been raiding the state's transportation funds to patch holes in budgets and keep taxes down.

As a result, local highway funds have virtually been eliminated.

Howard County used to get about $16 million from the state for its roads; now it gets less than $500,000. As Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun's transportation reporter, noted the other day, Baltimore County saw its share of state aid for road repair go from $43.2 million in 2007 to an expected $1.3 million in 2012. Anne Arundel County's went from more than $30 million to less $1 million in recent years. Harford and Carroll counties saw drops like that in Howard.

That's why our ride is so bumpy, and now so costly — with that extra 60 cents a gallon in the last year going to oil companies and commodity speculators, not to roads, highways and mass transit.

Imagine if we had just bitten the proverbial bullet and gone for a higher gasoline tax in 2010, in part to deal with federal and state budget deficits, in part to replenish transportation funds. Republicans would have howled about a "jobs-killing gasoline tax increase," of course, in a way they never seem to howl when the sheikhs and sharks gouge us.

Steven Pearlstein, business columnist of The Washington Post, calculates that a 60-cent increase in the cost of gasoline was good for about $100 billion over the past year. "During that same period," Mr. Pearlstein notes, "private businesses created 1.2 million jobs and recorded near-record profits, stock prices rose by more than 20 percent and auto sales were brisk enough that General Motors recently handed out $4,000 profit-sharing checks to each of its unionized workers."

So, had that 60-cent increase gone to a tax, instead of to the profit of the sheikhs and sharks, we would have somehow muddled through, and we wouldn't be cursing potholes as often this winter on the bumpy drive to spring.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR, 88.1 FM. His e-mail is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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