Public Comment

Commentary: The Policy We Dare Not Mention

Brit Harvey
Tuesday September 05, 2006

What administratively simple state or federal policy change would: 

1) Reduce or eliminate congestion on freeways and streets, 

2) Reduce smog,  

3) Eliminate the need for signing and enforcing car pool/hybrid/HOT lanes while encouraging car pooling and hybrids,  

4) Discourage suburban sprawl and big-box commercial shopping centers, while encouraging smaller, neighborhood commercial establishments,  

5) Increase pedestrian and bicyclist safety, 

6) Encourage the purchase of fuel-efficient vehicles without imposing complex regulatory rules, 

7) Probably decrease Exxon Mobil’s record profits,  

8) Significantly decrease the US trade deficit,  

9) Decrease US oil imports from politically unstable regions, such as the Persian Gulf, 

10) Slow global warming, 

11) Leave net tax revenue unchanged and probably have no impact on the state or national budgets, and 

12) Economically benefit most low-income people. 


A hint: this policy has been implemented for decades in countries around the world.  

One more hint: it is never mentioned by either Democrats or Republicans in the United States. If it is mentioned in the U.S. media at all, it is usually qualified by the phrase “politically impossible.”  

Give up? Raise gasoline taxes and decrease other taxes an equivalent amount. At the state level, this tax shift could be accomplished by increasing the state gas tax and decreasing the state sales tax an offsetting amount. How much? Somewhere between $2 and $4 dollars a gallon would probably provide all the benefits stated above. How fast? Shifting the equivalent of one half dollar per gallon would provide time to adjust by buying more efficient cars, demanding housing closer to jobs, and getting serious about public transit.  

Would there be winners and losers? Of course, although the direct overall fiscal impact would, by definition, be neutral, and the benefits cited above would be enjoyed by everyone. Low-income people who don’t own cars or drive much would benefit from the lower sales taxes. Gasoline is a relatively small proportion of consumption for the majority of fixed-income elderly, so they would benefit economically. How about the rich? Consumption taxes are trivial for the wealthy, so they would hardly notice or care. 

Why not rely on Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations to cut oil imports and global warming exhaust? Even if they included Hummers and the MPG requirements were increased, these regulations only influence the efficiency of cars when they are sold. They do nothing to encourage efficient vehicle use after the sale.  

Why not rely on High Occupancy/Toll (HOT) lanes (as proposed by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), with hybrids tossed in? These schemes are complex, require expensive enforcement, favor those rich enough to pay, and favor specific technologies. Anything this complex can’t be a solution. 

Why not look to the future and embrace the “hydrogen highway”? Fuel cell vehicles cost $250,000 and up, 30 percent of the hydrogen leaks out of current generation tanks while they are sitting in the garage, the hydrogen fueling stations don’t exist, and the best current hydrogen source is natural gas. So let’s look to the future, but in the meantime....  

Is shifting taxes from general sales to gasoline associated with a specific faction on the political spectrum? Environmental groups like the Sierra Club would presumably applaud, although you won’t find this policy mentioned on their websites. Some neocons, fearing U.S. reliance on Middle East oil and looking to decrease the flow of money to hostile regimes, are buying hybrids and advocating conservation. A tax shift would further their goals.  

A tax shift would bring enormous net benefits to society and the planet. The United States currently has the lowest gas tax rate of any major oil-importing country. Yet not only is this simple, timely policy change not being debated by our leaders, it is not even being mentioned.  


Brit Harvey is a Berkeley resident.