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How about a better way to pay for roads? | Editorial
The gas tax is insufficient. Here are some better options.
Traffic on the eastbound lanes of the Howard Frankland Bridge backs up way past the hump in this photo from the files while the westbound lanes flow freely.
Traffic on the eastbound lanes of the Howard Frankland Bridge backs up way past the hump in this photo from the files while the westbound lanes flow freely. [ O'ROURKE, SKIP | St. Petersburg Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Jun. 17
Updated Jun. 20

How do you pay for highways and bridges? The federal gas tax — currently 18.4 cents per gallon and unchanged since 1993 — is not up to the task. Drivers may complain about the price of gas, but Highway Trust Fund revenues have fallen short of costs for years, and the Congressional Budget Office projects that the gap is only going to grow. And electric cars pay no gas tax at all, so as they become common, the underfunding of road work will only worsen. Politicians need to think beyond the gas pump — to how many miles a vehicle travels and how much it wears out the road surface and hurts the environment.

A bipartisan group of senators is working on an infrastructure deal. But they face roadblock after roadblock. For starters, they can’t even agree on what infrastructure is. Roads and bridges, yes. High-speed internet connections? In this day and age, it should be. Etc. And how to pay for it?

Republicans are reluctant to raise taxes to pay for any infrastructure at all, including roads. And yes, there’s an argument that the cost of borrowing is so low and the advantages to the economy of a rebuilt infrastructure are so high that it’s a good long-term investment just to keep on borrowing cheap money. Still, the bill will come due eventually — one way or another. One of the bipartisan gang, Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, hinted at a possibility last weekend on Face The Nation. She won’t support raising or even indexing the gas tax to inflation, but she wants electric vehicles to pay a “fair share of using our roads and bridges.”

The gas tax falls short of paying for roads and bridges.
The gas tax falls short of paying for roads and bridges. [ Provided ]

What might that mean? Oregon and Utah have pilot programs that tax cars per mile driven instead of taxing gas at the pump. But that means a heavy, road-pulverizing gas guzzler and a lightweight fuel-sipping hybrid pay the same cost per mile. That’s wrong. A better method might use a formula that includes miles driven and the vehicle’s weight. Heavier vehicles are harder on roads. And guess what? From the Tesla on down, high-performance electric vehicles are heavy. It’s the battery.

Ford’s coming electric F-150 pick-up, the Lightning, has properly played to great reviews. It may be the electric truck for the rest of us, affordable enough and performing better than a regular truck in virtually every way. But high-density batteries are not lightweights, and the Lightning weighs 6,500 pounds, 1,800 pounds more than a gas-powered F-150. Think what that extra weight will do to the roads.

Electric vehicles are coming to America’s roads ever faster. They are good for the planet, especially when the electricity that charges their batteries comes from renewable sources. Tax policy must not hinder their adoption, and it’s also important that polluters should pay. A carbon tax or fee — separate from a “miles driven” fee — could solve that by advantaging drivers of electric cars and helping to put a price on the pollution behind global warming. But drivers need to cover their fair share of road upkeep no matter what powers their cars and trucks. A miles-driven tax that factors in weight is worth a look.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.