More on the Gas Tax

My father sends a critique of my views on the gas tax, and an innovative proposal for a "latte-type tax":

In your discussions of the gas tax I didn't see any acknowledgment of the user fee aspect of the gas tax. It is actually a user fee,as gas usage is proportionate to vehicle weight and distance, with a slight progressive bias due to the fact that higher income folks tend to buy heavier vehicles.You may recall that there was a Commission that reported to the Congress that we should actually be investing about three times as much money as we are at present in the surface transportation system and we should raise the user fees appropriately to pay for these needed investments.

One of the reasons that there is much less elasticity today,as compared to 1973, is that we have jettisoned almost all of the non-transportation industrial uses of petroleum products. Very few,if any,power plants have base loads dependent on oil. Most peaking plants have been shifted to natural gas. The uses of diesel generators for standby and isolated power is probably the largest non-transportation usage,but even there new solar installations are reducing those loads.

People are consolidating trips,if one believes the Walmart reports. Fewer actual sales, but higher dollar values,reflecting the reduction in trips. We will probably see even more of that as the price of gas goes up over the next few months.

But very few people actually have the ability to change modes as prices change. And life styles both at home and at work reduce the value of carpooling. Slugs may work in the DC area, but I have not heard of 'slugs' in any other market. People drive to work because they have to, and they drive because it gives them the trip flexibilities that they need. You may recall that the analysis of the SR91 toll lane usage in California showed that there were no one set of users ; people chose the toll lanes over the free lanes when time was at a premium,such as making appointments on time.

That is why carbon taxes and congestion charges turn out to be revenue generators, not behavior modifiers. Over the long run people can change behavior by choosing a different power option for their vehicle ( presuming that there is a non-carbon option),a different job location, or a different home location. But those choices only pay out over long periods of time, if they can pay out at all.

I also have advocated that we charge for Blackberry emails at a $1 per email, to raise money for transportation. It would both raise money and improve productivity,as people stopped sending and receiving useless emails to avoid the charge.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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