Taxes are necessary to provide many things people want and need, and we can all agree that roads and the rest of our transportation system are among those. In Massachusetts, the state gasoline tax has been 41.9 cents per gallon since around 1990. It's a similar story for the federal gasoline tax, at 18.4 cents since 1993. Since then, our roads, bridges and pubic transportation systems have been crumbling through both normal aging and lack of proper maintenance. I doubt anyone will disagree with that.
Many state legislators, especially those from cities and inner suburbs like Belmont, would support raising this tax. Several state officials have told me that it would be difficult to sway their colleagues from the more rural and sprawled parts of the state, that is, those who drive more.
Here is where I think raising this tax is completely justified and fair: When you account for inflation, where the consumer price index has increased by about 63 percent since 1990, the revenue from the Mass gasoline has lost a huge fraction of its buying power. So every year, if you include inflation, drivers essentially get a tax cut.
On top of that, since most people drive more efficient vehicles than they did 20 years ago, they're contributing that much less per mile driven even though the load on the roads has not diminished.
Let's do a quick example. If you used 400 gallons of gas (10,000 miles at 24 mpg), you paid about $75 in federal gasoline taxes and $165 to Mass. Does $240 buy as much today as it did in 1990? A simple and fair approach would be to restore both to 1990s levels, even if over the period of a few years, and index them to inflation going forward.
There are some side effects to this, of course. Yes, it's a minor additional financial burden. But the money would go right back into our local economy, for labor an materials for our infrastructure. We'd all benefit, short-term and long-term.
Over the past couple months, this topic has gotten more visibilty, from the governor to columnists to federal officials, both locally and nationally. Unfortunately, the anti-government and anti-tax ideologues are a huge impediment to fixing this problem.
Are we finally waking up on this issue? Are we ready to "man up" to our responsibilities and to reality?