May 04, 2008

"The Folly of a Gas Tax Holiday"

Once again, politicians are pandering to our worst instincts. They’re suggesting a summer vacation for our 18.4 cent per gallon Federal gasoline tax, telling us it will make driving more affordable in the busy travel months again. Hogwash!

If anything, lowering gas prices will only drive up demand, and thus, lead to even higher prices.

And cutting the gas tax would mean $10 billion not collected to pay for long overdue road maintenance and repairs. Good for car repair shops, but bad for motorists.

This assumes, of course, that the oil companies won’t raise prices. And it doesn’t explain how to deal with the post-summer shock of reinstating that tax in the fall, just before the election.

The same gas tax scheme was floated last year on a state level in a plan that would have lost us $120 million in subsidies for mass transit. Fortunately, wiser minds prevailed in ‘07 and I hope the same will happen this year.

Even if the Federal tax holiday went through, it would save the average motorist, by most estimates, a whopping $1.83 per week. Oh yeah, that’ll help.

If this is how lawmakers respond to our energy crisis, God help us. McCain and Clinton must think we’re na├»ve and short-sighted… and maybe they’re right. (To his credit, Obama is standing alone in opposition to this idiocy).

If a patient is an alcoholic, you send them to rehab. You don’t just subsidize the price of booze hoping to postpone the inevitable.

The inevitable is ever-higher gasoline prices. For years I’ve been writing that gasoline is too cheap, and I still believe that. Americans are still spoiled with cheap fuel, even at $4 a gallon. Last week in London petrol sold for $8.20. (My daughter helped me with the math, converting pounds to dollars, Imperial gallons to US). Admittedly, some of that price is taxes used to subsidize mass transit. But consider the vast network of trains and buses available in the UK, and I think you’ll agree they’re funding some great alternatives to the single occupancy motor vehicle.

I only wish we had such choices. Sad old Metro-North is enjoying a huge surge in ridership, but because short-sighted lawmakers in Hartford didn’t act a decade ago to order more rail cars, we’ll have subway-like, standee-only conditions on most trains by the time the new M8 cars arrive next fall.

I’ll tell you how to save money on gas: drive less. Trade in your Hummer for a Prius. Be sure your tires are fully inflated. Drive at 55 mph instead of 70. Coast when possible. If you’re stopping for more than ten seconds, turn off your engine. Take unnecessary weight out of your car (unless it’s another passenger). Keep your engine tuned up. Ride a bike (but not on the train). Try walking.

Sure, take a vacation this summer. You can even do it by car if you’d like.

But first, check how much your next road-trip will cost at the AAA’s nifty website . Then, price out your alternatives by mass transit. That train or bus is making the trip with or without you, so get onboard.

And while you’re traveling, drop a note to your elected officials and ask them why they still pay only lip-service to our nation’s energy strategy. Ask them why Congress is letting tax credits for solar and wind energy lapse just when we need them most. Lawmakers found time last week to vote for “National Watermelon Month” (really!), but they couldn’t agree on a long range plan to provide energy for our nation. Nero is fiddling while Rome burns.

A gas tax holiday this summer? Give me a break.


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