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Watts: The Gas Tax

When my parents moved to Putney in 1964, we bought our gasoline at the General Store. The gasoline cost 32 cents a gallon – which, when you adjust for inflation – is about $2.50 today. In fact, when I stopped to buy gas just recently, the cost was $2.30 cents – actually cheaper today, in real terms, than fifty years ago. At the same time, transportation has changed dramatically. In 1964 it took a half hour to get from Putney to Brattleboro on Route 5. Today you can do the trip in five minutes on I-91.

There’s a new bridge over the West River, replacing the metal structure that greeted travelers for many years. One of Vermont’s first round-abouts merges traffic from the interstate with Putney road. A bike lane and a sidewalk now run alongside where corn fields once stood.

Of course, building and maintaining so much infrastructure costs money – most of which comes from taxes on gasoline. And studies show funding lags behind needs by many millions of dollars. One study puts the annual shortfall in Vermont at $240 million. So it’s hard to see how we can possibly afford to fix our crumbling infrastructure while adding essential sidewalks, bike lanes and needed public transit options. Water running off our roads and parking lots pollutes our lakes and streams, requiring additional funding.
Yet, it is difficult to have a civil policy debate about how to fund the needs of our transportation system. Nationally, the gas tax hasn’t seen an increase since 1993 – under then president Bill Clinton. In Vermont, there have been very small increases in the last two decades, well below projected needs.

The current negativity of political campaigns may be partly to blame. Governor Scott, for example, was sharply attacked in the Republican primary for simply mentioning the idea of a mileage based fee – one possible alternative to the gas tax.

It’s time for the legislature to review the cost of transportation and how we pay for it – and that has to include a real discussion of the gasoline tax.

Or we could, I suppose, allow our roads and bridges to deteriorate, reduce road maintenance budgets and cut snow-plowing frequency.

I’ll bet that would get the conversation started.

Richard Watts teaches communications and public policy in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Vermont and directs the Center for Research on Vermont. He is also the co-founder of a blog on sustainable transportation.
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