Pave now or pave later – la progressive ideal gas questions

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Poorly maintained infrastructure is a safety issue that poses a risk to all users. Roads that aren’t maintained are vulnerable to more accidents and thus more injuries or deaths. These issues are amplified in low income communities because roads are likelier to be poorly maintained.

Generally, all areas of a city compete for the little available funding to fix roads and it tends to go to wealthier communities with more political clout. In the end, disadvantaged communities that are least able to afford poorly maintained roads are the ones that pay the most.

Even though the Transportation Funding Bill is needed to addressing Los Angeles’ infrastructure issues, it is not a long-term solution. In March, the California Board of Equalization blocked a four-cent gas tax increase that left a $617 million deficit in the budget. The move was intended to send a message to Gov. Brown that the 12-cent gas tax enacted last November is deeply unpopular, and another tax hike would be too soon on its heels.

Given the energy with which Republicans have put into the repeal measure, their message is clearly resonating with voters. Although most of the funding will go toward filling potholes and repairing highways and streets, there has been a greater focus on the economic burdens it places on drivers. The spending portions of the bill will benefit cities especially low-income communities, but its funding mechanism is essentially a regressive tax.

An equitable source of funding should not burden one group over others, but the gas tax disproportionately affects low income drivers. Californians already pay the highest gas prices in the nation after Hawaii. The state average is nearly 70 cents more than the average price of a gallon of gas nationwide. Increasing the gas tax will affect low income drivers the most since they have the least disposable income to spend when prices rise.

Gas taxes also place the burden on older vehicles that are less fuel efficient, typically resulting in lower income people paying more. Families are then often forced to choose between cutting back on driving or reducing other expenditures. Wealthier people who are less constrained by a budget actually tend to pay less in the long run because they usually drive newer vehicles.

Instead of relying so heavily on a gas tax to pay for infrastructure, there is evidence that a road use fee would be a better substitute. A road use fee would require drivers to pay based on their usage of roads either using time or mileage. As cars become more fuel efficient and electric cars represent a greater share of vehicles on the road, the gas tax will become outdated.

On the other hand, charging based on use will generate a steady stream of revenue that does not place the burden of paying more on older cars. A trial of road use fees in Oregon, considered a model for road use fees, showed a reduction in the tax amount drivers with less fuel-efficient cars paid because wealthier drivers paid their share. Road use charges are a more sensible response to continuing using gas taxes with limited viability left.

There are still a few difficulties that may emerge from moving from an established gas tax to a road use fee. Some critics argue that without the gas tax, drivers lose the incentive to drive less and automakers stop developing more fuel-efficient cars. California however already has environmental legislation that places limits on emissions from vehicles and requirements for fuel efficiency. A road use fee is also in itself, an incentive for people to drive less as they will be charged more for greater road usage.

The most notable issue that arose in the Oregon program was starting costs. The program will be slightly more expensive than the gas tax but as it expands, costs will fall dramatically. Even with initial costs, the user charge fee resulted in a 28% increase in revenue because of significantly higher returns from highly fuel efficient vehicles.

Transportation infrastructure is a priority for all Californians, and as such, the Transportation Funding Bill must remain in place to improve street conditions and public transportation options. However, continuing to rely on gas taxes will only widen the gap between older and newer vehicle owners, unduly hurting low income Californians.

It is critical that transportation funding be raised now to prevent paying more in the future, but we must move away from an outdated system. The road use fee is an innovative approach to funding transportation services that actually address the equity gap while increasing revenue.