Gas Is Cheaper, But What About Roads?

By BIKEBOY, aka Steve Hulme

Idaho’s highways are in serious need of repair and upgrade. The Transportation Department (ITD) estimates that it would cost an additional $250 million per year, just to maintain the status quo.

Many of us are skeptical. To us, the roads look fine… until a bridge falls into the river, like it did back in Minnesota.

Enter Guv C. L. “Butch” Otter.

(Remember CONGRESSMAN Butch? The libertarian-leaning advocate of the downtrodden taxpayer? Heir apparent to Steve “take a bite out of government” Symms? Well, times have changed.)

Simply put, Butch is trying to figure out some way to get 250 million more dollars out of taxpayers’ bank accounts, and into the ITD bank account.

The first idea Butch floated (during the ’08 Legislative session) was of drastically increasing vehicle registration fees. The reception was lukewarm… about the temperature of liquid nitrogen, as I recall.

Now he’s talking about a “mileage tax.” It would be simple. Read the odometer each time the car is registered, and collect dollars based on miles-driven since last time.

He’s obviously thinking anything is better than raising the fuel tax!

Let’s take a look at the options.

(I’m just throwin’ ’em out for people to chew on.)

A revenue-enhancing registration fee sounds fair, doesn’t it?

Wait! Not so fast! Here’s a commonplace scenario:

Beavis has a 1992 Ford F-150. He drives it back and forth between his house in Kuna and his job in east Boise – puts 20,000 miles on it in a year.

Next door lives – you guessed it – Butthead. He puts 2000 miles a year on his identical ’92 F-150, doing a couple dump-runs and a few fishing and hunting trips.

Just to make the math easy, let’s say Butch charges ’em $200/year to register that truck.

Turns out Beavis would be paying one cent per mile, and Butthead ten cents, for the privilege of being registered.

Also, it should be noted that the “foreigners” who visit Idaho from California and other places are not sharing in the registration-fee revenue scenario.

Same scenario: If Butch collects five cents per mile, Beavis pays $1000 (ouch!) and Butthead pays $100. (Beavis isn’t gonna like this!)

But… how about the guy who lives in Post Falls but does 90% of his driving in Washington? Should he pay the five cents, too?

Can of worms!

A variation that’s being tested next door in Oregon is a GPS-based scheme. A GPS receiver installed in the car keeps track of miles driven. Shades of “Big Brother,” huh? That’s why most people don’t like it – in these parts, we don’t like the government keeping such close track of us.

A mileage-based tax would encourage an underground industry that specializes in odometer tweakage, GPS file hacking, etc. I’m just sayin’. And like the registration fee, a per-mile tax would exclude the despised Californians. And the tolerated Oregonians, Utahns, etc. (Tourism is a growing and desirable industry. I don’t know what share of the roadbuilding and upkeep fees should be shared with our tourists… but it should be part of the discussion.)

Nobody (except maybe for the disciples of Pope Algore) wants to see higher gas prices. It would be a brave politician indeed, who would advocate for 20 cents more per gallon, when gas is already four bucks.

But compared with the plans that Butch has proposed so far, it seems more equitable.
– The guy in the Hummer will pay more per mile, than the guy in the Geo Metro.
– The guy who drives 20,000 miles will pay more than the guy who drives 2000 miles.
– We also include the tourists, at least the tourists who are driving (and thus putting wear and tear on our roads).

Plus, it’s easily collected.

Opponents point out that as people drive more fuel-efficient vehicles, revenues will drop.

What’s the alternative? Should gas misers be punished, or taxed at a higher rate than gas guzzlers? As a general rule, the better fuel mileage a car gets, the less wear-and-tear it’s likely to put on the road, because of lighter weight.

There is not, and never will be, a revenue-collecting method that’s fair for everybody. There are disadvantages to any of ’em. But if we need a big influx of cash… from this observer’s viewpoint, as unpalatable as it may be, the gas tax seems like the most fair and easy way to collect from the actual roadway users. Substantially more so than either a registration tax or an odometer tax. And the Libertarians should take Butch’s membership card away for even suggesting those other ideas!

(An expanded version of this discussion can be seen at Bikeboy’s IDAHO SPUD blog.

Comments & Discussion

Comments are closed for this post.

  1. Den Brockway
    Oct 17, 2008, 4:08 pm

    Watch for a proliferation of speedometer shops. The market will solve all the idiotic ideas that Otter throws out.

  2. One problem with your argument is that this statement “As a general rule, the better fuel mileage a car gets, the less wear-and-tear it’s likely to put on the road, because of lighter weight.” is not true. The difference in road wear caused by a hummer and a Prius is negligible. Weight only makes a difference when you get into big commercial trucks.

  3. Wait a minute, the Hummers have a GVW (gross vehicle weight) over 10,000 pounds compared to less than 2,000 pounds for a Prius, thats a factor of 5. Since the Hummers tires are less than twice the size of a Prius the weight per square inch is over 7 times greater. The difference is not negligible. By the way Hummers are technically illegal in most cities in California which have a 10,000 GVW restriction except on designated truck routes, although it’s unenforced.

    I think the gas tax is the fairest way to go, and getting it passed now while gas prices are dropping would make it less noticeable in the family budget.

  4. I fully agree a fuel tax would be the simple answer. We already collect extra fuel taxes for over the road trucks. Many commercial drivers take advantage of the various fuel taxes along their routes. I believe Idaho has a fairly high tax on diesel when compared to Wyoming. As crazy as it seems, lowering the diesel tax for these long haul truckers may result in extra revenue for the State. Instead of filling up with 300 gallon in Cheyenne, they might stop in Burley.

    As for the private drivers/commuters, I say raise that tax. I drive my truck the 2000 miles a year just as noted above. Make people pay for the choices they make. Whether it be for living in Nampa to work in Boise or driving something bigger than they may need.

  5. Tax the gas and I’m buying from Ontario…in bulk.

  6. Rod in SE Boise
    Oct 17, 2008, 9:52 pm

    How about we do the smart thing for a change? Raise the driving
    age to 21.

    That will take a bunch of cars off the roads.

  7. As long as gas remains high people drive less. Isn’t that the point. Less travel should equal less maintenance. They need to figure out what needs to be done to keep the roads we have decent.

    My concern is that we should look into flexible mass transit that actually will get people to and from point A to B in a reasonable amount of time. And it isn’t a rail system. Population density is the big hanger on all of this. If gas gets cheap cars will start clogging the roads. Gas tax makes sense and it taps the out of state users of Idaho roads and highways. You drive and you pay. No fancy electronics are needed, thank you very much.

  8. The obvious answer is also the one no politician of either party will mention….the politicians could look at the billions they already collect and set a priority for the roads higher than some other program already funded but less important than those roads. In the olden years this was called leadership. Today we call it heresy.

  9. The Boise Picayune
    Oct 18, 2008, 9:40 am

    Gas Taxes, Graduated Registration Fees (based on punishment said vehicle subjects infrastructure to), Institution of Commercial Registrations (for instance, a taxi is generally on the roads 24/7), and Highway Use Tax for out of state big rigs (payable at existing ITD weigh stations).

    It’s all gonna cost a wee bit more; but – in case you haven’t noticed – the “Free Ride” is over.

    We want roads, mass transit, etc..? The money’s gotta come from somewhere.

    And suckling at the tit of the Ponzi Scheme known as the Fed (as in “Reserve” and “Gov’t”) can’t be relied upon any longer (traditionally, Idaho is one of the few states that receives far more in federal Aid than it pays out in taxes).

    “A definition of madness is trying the same things over and over and expecting different results.” ~Albert Einstein

  10. Let me be a bit more accurate. Ericn you are right that there is a difference between the Prius and the Hummer. However, that difference becomes negligible when you compare either to a truck. Damage to roads increases exponentially with axle weight.

    The number of lanes are a factor of the number of cars, not the size of those cars. The roadbed design is a function of weight. 1,000 hummers per day or 1,000 Prius per day.. equates to the same requirement for lanes. And gas tax no longer reflects miles driven on the road as it did originally. Registration fees don’t account for the difference between the person driving all day and the little old lady who drives to the grocery store once each week.

  11. Most of you are operating under the incorrect assumption that taxes or fees must be raised somewhere to meet this need. Might I propose that with a 3+ Billion dollar annual budget (5+ if Feds are included) that the money is already there.

    Just for amusement sake, let’s assume that the state acts like an everyday Joe and only spends what it “makes”. hmmm… now that is a novelty. I guess they’d have to re-prioritize instead of reaching into our collective pockets when they REALLY want something. Yup, tough decisions would be required, so I’ll make the first sacrifice – I watch PBS, but I’ll give it up and watch the free network stations. Now the state can spend that 4 Million dollars on roads – wow, that was easy. Ok, since we REALLY need these roads, this year, we’re only going to give out 10 Million dollars in scholarships instead of 20 Million. GREAT – I just found $14 Million dollars to cut from the budget that really doesn’t hurt that bad…only 236 Million to go – who’s next?

  12. Couple of thoughts:
    1. Re Beavis and Butthead — often, they’re the same person. Many Idahoans have two or more vehicles, so they can use the one that’s needed.
    For example, I have a Ford F350 one-ton that I use only when I need to haul a ton of hay while towing a trailer with another ton on it, or for other large, heavy loads. It weighs a lot, wears out the road, and gets lousy gas mileage; ergo, I pay lotsa gas tax for the roads when I use that one.
    I also have a Ford 150 half- ton that I use for smaller stuff; weighs less, does less wear (and less pollution), and gets many more MPGs so I pay a bit less for the roads.
    I also have a 1100-cc motorcycle; good for highway speeds at 30 MPG. And a 125-cc motorcycle, good for around town at 70 MPG.

    OK, maybe I’m extreme, but I know lotsa folks who have a mid-size pickup, a full-size truck, a sedan, etc. and use the one that’s right for the job.

    Oh, yeah, my wife and I also have a Jeep Grand Cherokee that gets 16 to 20 miles to the gallon, is all-wheel drive (much safer in Idaho’s winters) and call haul us and our luggage, etc., or pick up fairly heavy stuff at the feed store or whatever. Much better for road trips etc. than the trucks or motorcycles.

    And if I can ever figure out how to keep the goatheads from flattening the tires, I might get to riding a bicycle more. (Yeah, I’ve tried the spray-in goop, the Kevlar tire liners, etc., but goatheads don’t give up easily.

    2. Ever see those pickups around town with wheels and tires that look like they belong on the giant earth-movers? Yep, those wheels turn many fewer times per mile than the normal ones, thus causing the odometer to turn many fewer times per thousand miles. So much for the accuracy of the electronic gizmos or checking the odometer at registration time (hard to do through the mail anyway) — and without having to tweak the odometer.

    You’re right about one thing, though: There ain’t no fair way. But fuel tax still comes the closest, since it makes me pay more when I drive my bigger truck, and gives me a break on the other vehicles.
    Problem with that, of course, is that the all-electric vehicles won’t be paying anything toward roads. Hmmm.

    Nuts; just fix the bridges and let the roads go to hell. We real Idahoans will just drive our pickups and Jeeps and suchlike through the potholes, while the Californians and other aliens may just give up on moving here.


  13. Erico49, your own source belies your argument. [QUOTE=]The relationship between axle weight and inflicted pavement damage is not linear but exponential[/QUOTE] Wouldn’t that mean the linear 7 times I estimated would be exponentially greater? The excessive weight of a Hummer over a Prius is not distributed over more axles or tires, rather it is concentrated into a smaller foot print. Oh and by the way, do you remember all the trucks that used to post “this truck pays $x,xxx in taxes each year”? I had little sympathy then, and less now.

    Gordon seems to have a more realistic approach. Pay for your choices. My mother in-law only drives 600 miles a year and never on the interstate. Why should she pay the same as a daily commuter? My only argument with Gordon is when he says “Problem with that, of course, is that the all-electric vehicles won’t be paying anything toward roads”. My view is that we need to break the dependency on foreign oil first, then start looking at the cost of conservation (which will be considerably less than the cost of life in the current middle east war). And every electric car on the road lowers the cost of asphalt, a petroleum based product.

  14. BB is heading in the right direction. I’m all for lowering taxes to a flat rate of 10% and forcing the government to live within its means, even at the expense of cutting unconstitutional inefficient and ineffective programs.

    Just another thought to throw out there…TOLL ROADS! – Privately owned ones at that.

    I’m all for privatizing everything that the government should not do. Time has proven the government’s incompetence in managing…well pretty much everything!

    With today’s technology, private toll roads would be very simple and effective. Only those using the road pay for them. The upkeep of the road would be better. Safety would improve.

    American people are much more capable than the American Government.

  15. BB’s got it right. Taxes should never be the first solution to a budget problem (and I used to think Otter followed that statement). The state must drastically cut spending. Now is absolutely NOT the time to raise taxes, Idahoans (and the rest of the country) are already broke due to this economy slump, and it’s already expensive enough to operate a vehicle. If gas was $1.00 a gallon I may consider a gas tax.

    But again, raising taxes should not be the answer, the state should cut spending. Suppose “Joe the Plumber” is wants to buy some new tools, does he save up and buy them (or properly budget for them) or go out and get a credit card and spend money he does not own and can’t manage? It goes the same for the State.

  16. There are a lot of good comments on this post. Clearly, there is no easy, acceptable solution if we continue to want everything. At some point we either pay more taxes to not only maintain but also to build more roads or we let the roads we have fall apart and congestion increase. That is fine with me. On the other hand, a bit of moderation might help if it was focused on the long term realization that roads are taking up our most precious resource at an incredible rate and the benefit we receive for each mile will build is diminishing.

  17. AlphaDogReporter
    Oct 19, 2008, 7:16 pm

    This was the absolute dumbest idead that Otter has come up with to date. I thought Kempthorne was a fruit loop but Otter has him beat by a mile. The only workable solution is to raise registration fees, PERIOD. A pay-per-mile program would cost more to administer than they would get out of it. Yes you can argue this way and that way and who drives fewer and more miles, but the keyword is WORKABLE. A fuel tax will not take into account electric vehicles or cars that get better mileage like hybrids. We are already paying cheaper registration fees than most other states anyway.

  18. Re Roberto’s suggestion for toll roads:

    I think they’d be a great idea for all those new roads the subdividers want for their new cover-the-foothills creations.
    That way, folks who live in those houses, and people who visit them, would pay for the roads.
    The subdivider should pay to have them built; the tolls would pay for maintenance and repair and suchlike, plus possibly paying back the subdivider’s road investment eventually.

    Could also consider tolls on new highways, for the same pay-by-users, perhaps.
    Not practical for city streets, though: A new toll booth each time you turn a corner would get complicated.

Get the Guardian by email

Enter your email address: