STEVE BOUSER: Yes, We Need a 50-Cent Gas Tax -- Now
This is expanded from a posting on the "Editor's Note" blog at thepilot.com.
You may remember this item from my 2009 wish list column a couple of weeks ago:
"Approval of legislation to take advantage of the current low gasoline prices to enact a 50-cents-per-gallon federal gas tax, the proceeds going to help fund a national crash program to improve our dangerously deteriorating infrastructure, put a lot of people to work, and move our country toward energy independence."
Confession: Though I didn't have room to explain before, that wasn't original with me. The idea, at least in that form, originated a couple of weeks earlier with Ray Magliozzi, half of Tom and Ray of NPR's Saturday-morning "Car Guys" show. They are also known whimsically as Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers. (If you don't listen to them, you're missing something.)
It was unusual for Magliozzi to inject his recent commentary about a gas tax into the show, whose wacky hosts usually steer clear of politics and confine themselves mostly to giving semi-serious answers to called-in questions about car problems. But "Ray's Rant," as it has come to be known, made more sense than anything I've heard in a long time.
I admire him for airing it -- despite the inevitable tiresome outcry from people who automatically oppose any tax increase at any time for any purpose. ("Oh, don't start with that," Tommy joked before his brother started his comment. "Last time you mentioned it, we got 5,000 letters calling us pinkos, commies and morons.")
Ray's basic argument was that the country should seize this moment in history, with gasoline prices having plunged to previously unimaginable levels, to make the bold but beneficial move of clamping on the half-dollar tax.
"I think it's an idea whose time has come," he said. "I know most politicians have been too wussy to do it. They're all afraid to talk about taxes. But I think the logic of raising the gasoline tax right now is unassailable."
I couldn't agree more.
"When gas was $4 a gallon, everybody cried," Ray said. "But gas is now less than two bucks a gallon. So there's never been a better time to do this. If we added a 50-cent national, gasoline tax right now, and gas cost $2.50 a gallon, would that be the end of the world? Hardly."
Tom grudgingly agreed, offering the observation that such a tax might, in fact, remind people to use public transportation more often and cut out unnecessary trips.
"Exactly," Ray said. "We know that the higher the price of gas, the less people drive and the more fuel-efficient cars they buy -- so the more fuel-efficient cars get manufactured. So a gas tax reduces the demand for oil, and reduced demand keeps the price low. It's a simple matter of supply and demand."
The new tax, Magliozzi noted, would generate between $50 billion and $100 billion dollars every year for the federal treasury. "And that money could be used to help rebuild our crumbling roads and bridges, and develop new technologies for more fuel-efficient cars, further decreasing demand for oil. This is a way for us to get on the wagon, stop sending money to countries that don't like us, and achieve energy independence."
As the guy in the TV commercials for home gadgets is always yelling: But wait. There's more! As the final piece of the puzzle, the infrastructure improvements funded by that inflow of gas tax revenue would include high-speed trains between major cities.
"And who would build all of those new high-tech, high-speed trains we'd need?" Ray said, triumphantly adding the icing to the cake. "GM! And Ford. And maybe even Chrysler. We'd help them start a mass-transit division, convert some of those factories from building inefficient gas hogs to building high-speed trains. I mean, the head of Ford used to run Boeing. He's done planes and automobiles. You think he can't do trains?"
I listened to Ray's Rant on that Saturday morning while cleaning leaves off our driveway with a gas blower. While I might not be any more excited than anyone else about paying more to fuel it or the lawn mower or our automobiles, I felt like cheering out loud at the beautiful logic and simplicity of Magliozzi's idea -- popular or not. I hope the Obama administration and Congress were listening too.
As the feisty Ray said of his plan: "I think its time has come, and I call on all non-wussy politicians to stand with me, because our country needs us."
So do I, and I'm proud to say so. Now, let the letters flow. We've been short on them lately anyway.
Steve Bouser is editor of The Pilot. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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