According to an opinion poll by The Washington Post and ABC News, 73 percent of the public surveyed are opposed to using a federal gasoline tax for deficit reduction.
When the public is solidly opposed to this measure, why isn't someone like Pietro Nivola listening?While deficit reduction is clearly a worthy national priority, it should not blind us to the overwhelmingly negative impact this tax will have on our deteriorating road infrastructure.
Recent federal inventories reveal that about 60 percent of the nation's 2.1 million miles of paved highway need some form of rehabilitation. In addition, 242,000 bridges - more than 42 percent of all bridges - are substandard. Many are so weak that they are posted for reduced vehicle weights or closed altogether.
While at least $80 billion must be spent annually to simply maintain roads at today's level, just $66 billion was spent by all levels of government in 1987. To go beyond maintenance and expand capacity to accommodate anticipated growth will cost about $100 billion each year for the next 30 years, or $34 billion more than we are now spending annually.
These unfathomable numbers have a real impact. Last year 42,000 Americans died and 2.3 million were injured in traffic accidents on the nation's highways. According to a study by the Transportation Research Board, road resurfacing and widening can reduce one-car accidents by as much as 51 percent and head-on collisions by as much as 55 percent.
But safety is not the only issue. Decaying roads and growing traffic mean greater vehicle operating costs for every driver. The average driver now loses $100 a year on wasted fuel, excess tire wear, and extra vehicle repairs, according to The Road Information Program.
While some argue that a gas tax increase will encourage energy conservation, it should be pointed out that nearly 10 billion gallons of gasoline could be conserved annually by simply improving the surface conditions of our current road system, without altering any driving patterns whatsoever.
To most Americans, driving a car is a necessity, not a luxury. The United States is uniquely dependent on its highways, roads and bridges to transport everything, including 82 percent of all goods moved in this country. The United States is far more dependent on its road infrastructure than Europe or Japan. In many regions, there is no real alternative to the automobile.
It is blatantly discriminatory to make motorists pay for the deficit based on the quantity of gasoline they must buy. Farmers and residents of rural areas will pay significantly more than city dwellers because of the longer distances they must travel. It is ironic that support for the deficit gas tax is coming from the two cities with the lowest per-capita consumption of gasoline in the United States - New York and Washington, D.C.
Families with several drivers will be hit especially hard, as will low-income earners. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the percentage of income spent for gasoline taxes by families earning $5,000 annually is more than 700 percent of that spent by families earning $50,000, in part because they drive the cars they can afford - the older, less fuel-efficient vehicles that burn more gasoline.
It is noteworthy that no proponent of the tax has suggested that it distributes the deficit burden equitably throughout the country and across all levels of income. It does not.
The popularity of the gas tax in Washington is based not on fairness, but on simplicity. With one vote, Congress can raise billions of additional dollars - not from the population as a whole, but from men and women who have no choice but to drive their cars to get to jobs, grocery stores, doctors and schools.