Note: Another dispatch from Fred Thompson:
Highway trust funds all over the country are running on empty. That is true at every level of government: federal, state, and local.
Highway maintenance really isn’t optional. Street and highway deterioration is inexorable: highway wear and tear is a simple function of the number, speed, and axle weights of the vehicles using the road and the passage of time, but damage accumulates at a compound rate. Statewide, given current discount rates, every dollar of highway-maintenance spending deferred has an average present value of nearly three dollars in future outlays, ranging from about $1.50 at the margin in Multnomah County to $11 in Clackamas County next door.
Recognition of this fact is one of the reasons that transport funding was placed in trust funds. Earlier generations feared that, if gas-tax dollars were not carefully walled off, myopic officials would raid highway maintenance funds to sustain other, trendier endeavors. They were right, of course. What they failed to take into consideration was the failure of elected officials to keep gas-tax rates abreast of inflation, let alone the dramatic improvements in vehicle miles per gallon of gas that have occurred of late. State per-gallon tax rates have been static for 20 years and mileage per gallon is up nearly 30 percent.
Tim Nisbett, in a guest column in the November 21, 2014, Oregonian, opined that “our transportation funding system is ready for a tax fairness overhaul.” Nisbett cited with approval a recent editorial from the Grants Pass Daily Courier calling for a “shift to income taxes to augment or replace the state's existing gas tax system.”
Nisbett’s argument rests on a series of premises. The first is that the ‘user pays’ mechanism, which matches tax burdens to the benefits citizens get from public services, cannot keep up with our transportation needs. Second, transportation taxes comprise a sizable portion of the average working family's contribution to state and local services. Third, these taxes are inherently regressive and that “the roadways of the future will require greater support from those best able to pay for them.” Finally, user fees exact an especially unfair toll on rural Oregonians, who tend to use the roads much more than the rest of us.
I think I am on Tim Nisbett’s side on this issue, but I don’t buy his argument, at least not entirely. Only one of Nisbett’s claims is unambiguously correct: that gas taxes are regressive. While it is true that gas tax revenues haven’t kept up with transportation needs, doubling state gas tax rates would largely fix that problem. The reason gas-tax revenues are inadequate is that they have fallen way behind the nominal growth in the state’s economy, which is entirely due to the legislature’s unwillingness to increase tax rates, along with DMV fees, over the past fifteen years. Doubling the per gallon tax rate would merely return the transportation tax burden on ordinary Oregonians to the level of 2000.
Nor are gas taxes a particularly heavy burden for most of us. The average driver pays significantly less than $100 in gas taxes and DMV fees per vehicle per year. Of course, the burden is higher on folks who drive more than average, especially rural drivers, but those who drive more than average also cause more road wear and tear than the rest of us. Moreover, urban drivers already provide big subsidies to country-road users. It is estimated that gas and weight-use-per-mile taxes resulting from operations on rural highways cover less than a third of their construction cost and upkeep.
I am a fan of user fees. As an economist, I like their incentives and I like the information that they can generate. Consequently, I would argue that increasing per-gallon gas tax rates (and indexing them to inflation) is the first thing that needs doing. We ought to do the same thing with DMV fees, so that they are no longer a burden on the highway trust fund, but instead contribute to it, as they were meant to. There is a simple way to offset the regressivity of gas-tax increases: drop the marginal tax rate for the 5 percent bracket of Oregon’s personal income tax (the first $3,500 of adjusted gross income) to zero. That would meet our transportation needs and, at the same time, increase the overall progressivity of Oregon’s state and local tax system. Nisbett called for a Red/Blue coalition for meeting the state’s transportation needs; this seems to be a better candidate for such a coalition than boosting our highest marginal personal tax rate, which is already the highest in the U.S.
I would also note that it is now possible to design and implement cost-effective mechanisms that more precisely monitor road use than ever before. In the long run, that could be of immense value for transportation planning and influencing road use. Those devices should probably be tried out on commercial vehicles, which are already subject to a weight-use-per-mile tax (in part because the highway damage caused by multi-axle freight vehicles is not directly covariant with fuel consumption). If the system works, it could be adapted to personal vehicles as well. Indeed, the Oregon Department of Transportation is now testing alternatives to the gas tax that would similarly track participating personal vehicles.
However, treating ODOT’s experiments as a solution to the transportation-funding problem seems very much like putting the cart before the horse. Increasing taxes is politically difficult, changing tax mechanisms is nearly as hard; doing both at the same time is practically impossible. Our roads need more money now.