Shana Tova loyal Transit Pass readers. I welcome you all back and wish you all a happy and healthy new year. In Sunday’s New York Times, long-time columnist Thomas Friedman wrote about the necessity of a hike in the gasoline tax. Friedman challenges the masculinity of the nation, saying essentially that even the French have more courage to confront their problems than we do.
But are we really that tough? If the metric is a willingness to send troops to Iraq and Afghanistan and consider the use of force against Iran, the answer is yes. And we should be eternally grateful to the Americans willing to go off and fight those fights. But in another way — when it comes to doing things that would actually weaken the people we are sending our boys and girls to fight — we are total wimps. We are, in fact, the wimps of the world. We are, in fact, so wimpy our politicians are afraid to even talk about how wimpy we are.
Friedman goes on to say that America needs a gasoline tax because it would reduce our dependence on foreign oil, spur energy innovation and investment in alternative energies and improve some of our foreign policy issues (and, oh, people might drive less).
Such a tax would make our economy healthier by reducing the deficit, by stimulating the renewable energy industry, by strengthening the dollar through shrinking oil imports and by helping to shift the burden of health care away from business to government so our companies can compete better globally. Such a tax would make our population healthier by expanding health care and reducing emissions. Such a tax would make our national-security healthier by shrinking our dependence on oil from countries that have drawn a bull’s-eye on our backs and by increasing our leverage over petro-dictators, like those in Iran, Russia and Venezuela, through shrinking their oil incomes.
Friedman and I differ on how to spend the money from a gasoline tax. He would use most of it on the defecit and healthcare. I would put a gasoline tax toward improving our transportation infrastructure. However, that’s small chickens compared to the notion of actually having a gasoline tax.
Americans, since the advent of large road building projects and the AAA and truckers’ unions have depended on largely free roads. Of course there is no such thing as a free road, it gets paid for somehow. But Americans have never really had to think hard how their roads get paid for. On the other hand we’re all too well aware of the cost of public transportation, in the form of a fare. But roads don’t have fares largely, it’s just pay the cost of a car and the gasoline and go driving. There aren’t even significant car taxes or licensing fees to pay for the upkeep of roads. We like our big government, just not paying for it.
However, a gasoline tax is incredibly important, if for no other reason than we need to wean people from gasoline and cars because they will eventually be largely unaffordable if we keep driving at our current pace. The whole notion of auto-based cities and suburbs and sprawling exurbs need to become ideas of the past. The car cannot and should not be eliminated, but this country needs to emphasize the urban, and the car is not a significant part of our urban future.
There is no debating that our country is growing; the US census estimates there will be 392 million people in the country by 2050. Those new people have to live somewhere, and the formula of quarter acre lots in the suburbs is not sustainable. We should not and cannot raze the suburbs, but we can make sure that our cities are beacons for the next generation. In order to do so the transportation networks must be better, more thorough, reliable and affordable. A gasoline tax would go a long way towards helping to create those necessary infrastructure improvements.
One final thought, how about tax breaks for car sharing? If the idea is to get people to drive less and own fewer cars, what better way than supporting car sharing systems with essentially subsidized gas?