Thursday, March 20, 2008

Why Not Heavy Gas Taxes? Why Carpool Lanes?

Someone explain this to me, because I do not get it at all.

We have these things, carpool lanes (HOV lanes in the east), that are supposed to encourage people to drive less often, and share cars. They impose a cost on people who drive alone (in the form of lost time and additional burned gas), and transfer some -- but not all -- of that amount to people who drive in carpools, in the form of gained time and (presumably, since gas burns faster in traffic) less burned gass.

However, there are numerous counterproductive consequences of this program. Workers lose productivity. More gas gets burned, and thus more emissions produced, than by a method that reduces traffic an equivalent amount without causing congestion. And some of the costs thus imposed on drivers are paid out to the oil companies, in the form of profits. Some environmental program!

A heavy gasoline tax would have none of these problems. If the gasoline tax were raised such that it provided the same disincentive to driving (alone) as does the carpool lane now, as measured in the number of drivers, it would lower, not increase, fuel consumption and emissions for all drivers. It would not slow anyone down (except possibly those who currently get to use the carpool lane). It would transfer the benefits to the state, rather than to the oil companies. And those who share cars (or drive hybrids) would still benefit: they'd save on gas as before. They'd just benefit a little less.

BUT, one might object, that would be regressive. All sales taxes are regressive, and a sales tax that primarily focuses on those who drive to jobs (and, not coincidentally, those who can't afford to live close to work) would probably be particularly regressive.

That's fine, except that the current system is regressive too. Who do you think are the people who can afford hybrids? Not the working class! Who is sitting there stuck in traffic burning gas and wasting time? Is there any evidence that the gas tax would be *more* regressive? (Specialists, I'm calling you!)

Moreover, the beauty of a regressive tax, as opposed to a regressive grant of entitlements like we have now, is that the funds are easy to redistribute back to the people who are worst off. The state will have all this new money from a gas tax, why not use it to fund public transportation for low-income neighborhoods? Why not use it to subsidize the purchase of those incredibly expensive hybrids so that someone worse off than the upper-middle-class can afford one?

THis seems like a total no-brainer to me. Am I missing something? Or are we all just the victims of really moronic public policy/oil industry lobbying?