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May 28, 2007

A Gas Tax Holiday This Summer?

Nobody likes to pay more for gas. But is the solution really the $120 million state gas tax “holiday” proposed by GOP lawmakers in Hartford, paid for from the $848 million budget surplus? Hardly! But as with the Democrats’ recent idea for free mass transit for senior citizens, who can argue against a “let them eat cake” style giveaway to residents.

Remember, these are your tax dollars we’re talking about. Rather than suggesting they actually be returned to you to spend, Hartford seems to think it knows best how to waste your money…

Like cutting the gas tax by 25 cents a gallon during the busy summer driving season. That would keep motoring cheap and subsidize further greenhouse gas emissions. But it would also cut funding to subsidize mass transit which is dependent on those taxes. Isn’t that a bit self-defeating, especially given we have the highest commuter rail fares in North America?

And those rail fares are going higher: effective January 1st 2008 we commuters face a $1 per ticket fare surcharge. Even the alternative plan from State Senators MacDonald and Nickerson would see a 7% fare increase by 2017 on top of whatever CDOT does to raise fares.

And why are rail commuters being asked to pay for the new rail cars? Bus riders don’t pay for buses and drivers certainly don’t pay for highway construction.

Here’s a better idea: why not use some of the $848 million budget surplus to eliminate the fare hike and keep mass transit affordable? Or accelerate the purchase of more new railcars? Or forgo some of their bonding so we actually pay for these cars, not our grand-children? Those would be investments in our transportation future, not a three-month escape from the reality of ever-climbing fuel prices.

This year’s legislative session began with promises of finally tackling the energy crisis. It remains to be seen if anything comes of those efforts. But clearly, offering freebies and handouts to short-sighted taxpayers is easier than making long-term decisions about our state’s energy and transportation future.

The near-annual effort to eliminate “zone pricing” for gasoline in the state was defeated, again, in the legislature. That means affluent towns’ high gas prices will continue to subsidize less well-to-do communities. But do we all really want to drive to Bridgeport to buy gas?

Subsidize gasoline and you only encourage consumption, driving those prices further upward. The way to lower gas prices is to decrease demand by getting motorists out of their cars and onto the train. Investing part of the state budget surplus in improving mass transit would help do that. But a short-lived summer holiday from gas taxes, like a beer binge on the beach, will only leave us with headaches.

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JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 16 years. He is Chairman of the Metro-North Commuter Council, a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM, but the opinions expressed here are only his own. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

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