The Solution to the Gasoline Crisis and Other Problems
Originally published 04/25/05. A discussion of the gasoline crisis and solutions Californians can implement locally. To view this article in the original context in which it was published click here.
Currently, the federal government taxes gasoline at 18.4 cents per gallon and the state of California at 18 cents per gallon. This is considerably less than what other industrialized societies tax gasoline. I propose that increasing the gasoline tax and using the funds to directly fund mass transit will improve traffic congestion, reduce pollution, and improve the economy, while moderating gas prices. This will be a broad discussion concerning the current status of these issues in California.
The city of San Francisco provides us with an example of how such a tax can be beneficial. San Francisco’s mass transit system is currently experiencing a budget shortfall and is proposing raising fares to $1.75. This in itself is not the problem, although the fare increase will hurt riders and dissuade the use of mass transit. The problem is that San Francisco has a mediocre mass transit system. After fares are raised, service is cut, parking fines are increased, garage parking fees are increased, etc. to close the budget shortfall, San Francisco will still have a mediocre mass transit system. Traffic congestion is a function of this. Luckily for San Franciscans, much of the pollution caused by drivers in the SF Bay Area gets blown southeast to Modesto.
In discussing the current crisis in the San Francisco Chronicle recently, Andrew Sullivan, Chairman of Rescue Muni made comments which appear to suggest that we increase gasoline taxes, without actually making such a suggestion. For example, "However, this rate of increase in fares, fees, and fines is not sustainable over the long haul…There is a real need to find alternative sources of revenue for Muni." Indeed. He also commented, "It is critical that any new source provide incentives for people to use transit instead of driving."
An increase in the gas tax that directly funds mass transit fits such a definition. This is also why I favor an increase in the gasoline tax to fund mass transit over an increase in the sales tax. An increase in the sales tax does not incentivize the use of mass transit over driving. If I purchase a pair of shoes for the purpose of walking, an activity that does not contribute to either traffic or pollution, how is it justifiable to tax this item to fund mass transit, and not tax the consumption of gasoline to fund mass transit, which does contribute to traffic and pollution?
A gasoline tax makes far more logical sense as a source of revenue for mass transit than parking fines, which is a logically bewildering solution. As a society we have a need for mass transit. In order to provide for this need we must depend on people breaking the law? Curiously, according to its website, Rescue Muni does not have a position on a local tax increase of 1 cent per gallon on gasoline, even though it was part of the MTA’s presentation to the MTA board.
The city of Los Angeles provides us with another example of how such a tax can be beneficial. Los Angeles has the worst traffic congestion in the country, as well as the worst air quality. These are a function of a poor mass transit system. Having lived in both cities, and having had the experience of using mass transit in cities like Paris and Madrid, I would have to rate SF mass transit a C and LA mass transit a D, compared to the A I would assign Paris. These European cities aren’t even among the cities reputed to have the best mass transit in the world, such as Tokyo, Moscow, and Mexico City.
The current mayor of Los Angeles, James Hahn, proposed a plan last year to allow hybrid vehicles to park at the city’s meters for free. He was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, "I think we want to do whatever we can to improve air quality in Los Angeles." I was astounded. The utter impotence. The complete lack of imagination. Instead of proposing a bold vision that would truly make a significant improvement in L.A.’s air quality, such as a world class mass transit system, he proposes a trickle down solution: When enough rich people buy a hybrid, and we’ll provide them with financial breaks and incentives in the meantime, perhaps the air quality in Los Angeles will slightly improve. "People will realize they won’t have to fish around for those quarters." Besides being unaffordable for the majority of Californians, hybrids do not do anything to relieve traffic congestion.
During James Hahn’s term, Los Angeles, a city of 3.8 million people went six weeks without mass transit. I seriously doubt that James Hahn uses mass transit. He commutes from San Pedro in a conventional gasoline powered vehicle, but was considering buying a hybrid, according to the article. How can you have such a lofty goal and come up such inane ideas?
On the other hand, perhaps he is doing more to advance mass transit than the Governor, most state legislators, and people who work on behalf of the government. I have heard him proudly proclaim that Los Angeles is starting up two new rapid bus lines per month. We still have poor mass transit. I know. I use mass transit. (This is a mistake. It was two new lines every six months. We still have poor mass transit.)
In 2000 the State Legislature passed Assembly Bill 2076 which required the California State Energy Commission and the California Air Resources Board to examine ways that California could reduce its dependence on petroleum. The joint agency report was finished in 2003 and is viewable on the CEC website. It is titled, "Reducing California’s Petroleum Dependence." A very broad title. It made such authoritative statements as, "By 2020, it is possible that 45.5 million Californians will have 31.5 million registered vehicles consuming 24.2 billion gasoline equivalent gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel. If this consumption occurs, it would require Californians to accept major expansions in petroleum refinery and delivery infrastructure, further dependence on foreign energy supplies, decreased environmental quality, and reductions in public health."
The 19 page report does not contain the words mass transit. It is absolutely not discussed as a topic or strategy, despite not being excluded from discussion by the bill. I e-mailed the principle authors to ask them why they gave such a broad title to their report, why they did not discuss mass transit as a means to reducing petroleum consumption, and what their view of mass transit is as a means to reducing petroleum consumption. I received some astounding comments.
Susan Brown wrote back, "Based on available research, and our analysis of the potential for public transit in the technical appendices to the AB 2076 Report, we concluded that even doubling use of public transit in California, would have a minor(as I recall about 2 percent effect) on reducing petroleum demand."
Less astounding, but illustrative of the problem are Gerry Bemis’ comments. "The Energy Commission sees mass transit as providing only a modest reduction in petroleum demand, maybe 5% or so. Not every city has an efficient transit system…Much of Sacramento is not well served by our transit system due to the length of trips and/or need for multiple transfers."
Would not the logical manner in which to proceed be to build and develop mass transit that serves all of Sacramento? How is it that countries such as Spain, France, Germany, and England that have populations larger than California consume less oil than California?
Dan Fong wrote something even more revealing: "Although we recognize that public transit plays an important role in providing transportation service to many Californians, we found that doubling usage rates would not produce a significant reduction in petroleum fuel demand. We also did not have a good methodology to determine how increasing usage rates could be achieved and what investment would be needed as a function of increased usage... If our resource levels improve in the future, a more detailed study might be supported and we might then be able to more accurately describe the potential for transit and make recommendations on making future improvements."
Apparently, the state of California is not even considering the use of mass transit as a means to reducing gasoline consumption, and subsequently traffic and pollution. The enlightened Governor declared at his most recent State of the State address, "This is a car centered state. We need roads."
Californians consume 16 billion gallons of gasoline annually, according to the California State Energy Commission. This is a tremendous potential source for revenue. The major objection to an increase in gasoline taxes is that drivers may not want to pay a few additional cents per gallon of gasoline. Inevitably, they will end up paying far more than a few extra cents per gallon. It is an amusing(and worrisome) exercise to project what the future price of gasoline will be based on the rate of increase over the past five years.
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