The Washington Legislature has convened for 2021 and lawmakers in the Evergreen State will soon consider a newly proposed House Transportation Package that is a comprehensive $27 billion 16-year program. This package would invest more in transportation infrastructure maintenance than any other previously proposed transportation package in Washington, despite the loss of state revenue from the coronavirus-related recession. The package includes a gas tax hike that would amount to 18 additional cents over a two-year period. This significant increase, combined with existing state fuel taxes and the federal tax on gasoline, would have Washingtonians paying 85.4 cents per gallon in taxes. This would be the highest in the United States.
Historically, gasoline taxes have been inherently unreliable sources of funding when it comes to state roads, maintenance, and other transportation infrastructure projects. This is attributable to the rise of more fuel-efficient vehicles. According to The Electric Vehicle World Sales Database, sales in electric vehicles have been consistently increasing since 2011. Furthermore, if states begin to follow in the footsteps of California Gov. Gavin Newsom, we are likely to see a phasing-out of the sale of gasoline-powered cars in the years to come.
The stark declines in driving that accompanied lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders drastically affected gasoline tax revenue for state and local governments, highlighting the fact that gas taxes are no longer viable sources for state infrastructure and transportation funding. According to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, more than $8.5 billion in planned projects across 14 states were canceled or delayed because of budgetary shortcomings due to COVID-19.
In 2015, Daniel Vock, writing for Governing, examined state gasoline tax data reported to the U.S. Census Bureau and discovered two-thirds of state-imposed fuel taxes failed to keep state transportation budgets afloat amid inflation. Moreover, the coronavirus pandemic has added an unforeseen layer to the complexities and shortcomings of using gasoline taxes to subsidize state-run programs and projects.
Additionally, fuel taxes are highly regressive and carry with them a myriad of economic consequences, including creating new direct-to-consumer costs. As a function of corporate finance, large-scale corporations and transit entities will see their usual budget allocation for fuel fall short with increasing prices, thus higher prices on goods and services will be the result.
As is the case with many top-down taxes, an increase in gasoline taxes will hit small business owners harder in a time when small businesses do not need any more hurdles to surmount, thanks to the coronavirus-related downturn. According to Wallethub, 87 percent of small business owners are struggling due to the coronavirus pandemic. In addition, and more specifically to the Evergreen State, the Washington unemployment rate grew 47.9 percent from November 2019 to November 2020. What may seem like a trivial increase in gasoline taxes could signal the deciding point between transportation and an employees’ wages with the delicate condition that states’ economies are in.
In a Maryland Public Policy Institute study, Wendell Cox and Ronald Utt argue that gas taxes have a significantly greater negative effect on the budget of lower- and middle-income families than they do for wealthier households. Gasoline consumption is inelastic for most Americans, meaning that those who are already marginally able to pay their bills will have an increased financial burden due to an increase in fuel taxes.
Moreover, the revenue from fuel taxes, more often than not, are rarely used towards their planned causes. The latest example of this took place in Pennsylvania, where gas tax revenue intended to fund bridge repairs went to the state police instead. The Keystone State saw $802 million in gas tax revenue allocated toward police funding. While police funding is laudable and paramount to society, there is no way for constituents to be sure that gas tax funding actually goes towards the betterment of state transportation infrastructure.
It would behoove the Washington Legislature to ensure that gas tax dollars are only allocated towards transportation projects. Furthermore, as more electric and fuel-efficient vehicles enter the market, policymakers will need to consider more modern and effective ways to fund road construction and general state transportation infrastructure. Many states have turned to privatizing roads and establishing toll systems as ways to improve their roadways.
Overall, as lawmakers in Washington consider this House Transportation Package they should avoid looking to ultimately unreliable gas tax increases and look towards legislation and policies that will provide more effective infrastructure funding in the years to come.
The following articles provide more information about how motor-fuel taxes are applied and their subsequent effects on the economy.
Raising Gas Taxes Won’t Fix Our Bridges
In this paper, Adrian Moore of the Reason Foundation argues increasing fuel taxes should not be the only response to state transportation funding problems. Moore wrote, “First we must examine how we spend transportation dollars now. Then we maximize the value out of those dollars. Finally, the last step is to address the need for additional revenue.”
Paying at the Pump: Gasoline Taxes in America
In this paper from the Tax Foundation, Jonathan Williams argues gas taxes can be an effective means of funding transportation improvements. In many cases, however, governments exploit the taxes for political reasons, spending them on projects unrelated to roads and other transportation projects.
Alternatives to the Motor Fuel Tax
This report, prepared by the Center for Urban Studies at Portland State University and submitted to the Oregon Department of Transportation, evaluates potential alternatives to motor-fuel taxes. The report also identifies the economic and technological problems that must be addressed when designing alternative revenue sources.
State Motor Fuel Taxes
The American Petroleum Institute documents each state’s current motor-fuel taxes (both gasoline and diesel).
Policy Tip Sheet: Gas Taxes are not the Long-Term Solution to Funding Transportation
In this Policy Tip Sheet, Matthew Glans examines gasoline taxes, how they have become less effective over time, and why states can no longer rely on them to fund state transportation projects.
Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the Budget & Tax News website, The Heartland Institute’s website, our Consumer Freedom Lounge, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.
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