Why Higher Gas Taxes Would Have Been Best Way To Save Fuel

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It's now a widely-accepted tenet of today's U.S. political landscape: You just can't come out and advocate for higher taxes.

For any purpose, under any circumstances, no matter what the end purposes.

Any politician who does so will be punished by voters.

DON'T MISS: Low Gas Price An Opportunity For Higher Gas Tax? Not A Chance

Two recent articles suggest that, despite its political impact, higher fuel taxes would be a better way to accomplish two different policy goals.

The first, from Grist, suggests that more expensive gasoline would be a fairer way to pay for highway funding than the per-mile payments suggested under plans to switch from gas taxes to payments based on Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT).

Author Ben Adler opines that it's a bad idea to tax people for the miles they drive--in effect, because not all miles driven impose the same wear and tear on roads.

Traffic Jam

Traffic Jam

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Today, funding road repairs through taxes paid both to the Federal government and the states at least ensures that heavier vehicles pay proportionally more than lighter vehicles.

There are differences, of course: Analysts have long argued that the heaviest trucks don't pay nearly their share of the outsize damage they inflict on roadways.

The heaviest double- or triple-trailer semi tractor rig can weigh as much as 25 times as much as the lightest passenger car on today's roads.

ALSO SEE: 12-Cent Rise In Federal Tax On Gas, Diesel Proposed By Pair Of Senators (Jun 2014)

The second article, on the Brookings Brief blog, is adapted from Senate testimony on energy efficiency given by Ted Gayer, director of the Economic Studies program at the Brookings Institution, a D.C.-based policy think tank.

Gayer's piece is simply titled, Four reasons to be wary of energy-efficiency mandates, and it makes similar arguments to those long supported by automakers and other auto-industry analysts.

"Assuming that citizens are not capable of making sensible decisions that affect their own pocketbooks," Gayer writes, "is not the right way to advance the important goal of enhancing the quality of our environment."

Gas Prices

Gas Prices

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In the case of cars, Gayer is referring to the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations that mandate rising levels of gas mileage for all vehicles from 2012 through 2025.

He too argues that if you want to reduce the use of a resource, raising its cost lets consumers make better market decisions than simply mandating that less be used.

Auto-industry figures--from Ford's chairman Bill Ford and its former CEO, Alan Mulally, to AutoNation CEO Mike Jackson, and many others--have long suggested that requiring automakers to build more efficient vehicles imposes all the burden of cutting energy consumption on them--and none at all on the consumer.

Utah highway

Utah highway

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And the challenges of that path can be seen in the surging sales of trucks and sport-utility vehicles in today's car market, precisely because gasoline is cheap and car buyers have notoriously short horizons when assessing their likely cost of ownership over many years.

In most European and Asian countries, on the other hand, fuel has long been far more expensive--and the average fuel efficiency of vehicles sold is much higher.

Meanwhile, every state in the U.S. now gets more money in highway repair funds from Washington than it sends in Federal gas taxes, because the tax rate hasn't risen in 20 years and all vehicles are more efficient--meaning less money sent there in the first place.

Many states face a similar challenge in their own fuel-tax collections.

But regardless how rational a policy idea higher taxes of vehicle fuels might be, the consensus seems to be that in today's political climate, it'll simply never happen.

[hat tip: Burt Galbraith]

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