The gas tax increase endorsed Thursday by the Legislature’s Transportation Committee should be considered one of the great disappointments of this session. Funding the state’s transportation infrastructure needs more than more money — it needs a complete overhaul of its philosophy.
It was clear a year ago, when gasoline prices surged, that the subsequent decrease in fuel consumption would wreak havoc with transportation funding. This has remained blindingly apparent during the recession, as fuel consumption was curbed by slowing economic activity. Just last fall, the short-term transportation shortfall was calculated at more than a half-billion dollars. 
And each time a policymaker, bureaucrat, lobbyist or whoever pushes multi-modal forms of transport, walkable cities, carpooling, bike lanes, buses, high-speed rail or other alternatives to gasoline-powered transport, the impact should be considered: Less driving means less money to fix or build our roads.
This doesn’t make these alternatives bad. Less fossil fuel consumption and greater fuel efficiencies stand to benefit consumers and the planet. But Maine’s transportation infrastructure stands to lose, because it is wholly dependent on consumption to survive.
Maine can’t have it both ways. There are many unfortunate parallels between tobacco taxes and gasoline; the state cannot create incentives against a behavior, then depend on taxes from that behavior to fund important, growing responsibilities. This may work for a sprint, but not for the marathon.
So now, this gas tax increase is on the table. On its own, it seems small. A 3.5 cent increase in each of the next two years, followed by two years of 2 cent increases, for a total of 11 cents. In return for this, the annual indexing of the tax to inflation would disappear.
Indexing raised the gasoline tax by about one penny per year, since it came around in 2002. So this increase would essentially triple the tax, if nothing changed and this trend stayed true through 2013. Tripling the gas tax? Have those bird-brains in Augusta lost their minds? We’re in a recession!
This outrage is justified, but somewhat misdirected. The gasoline tax increase is not the real problem, rather the lack of ideas. Maine, over the next decade, faces a $3 billion commitment to transportation projects, without any real sense of how to pay for them.
Even if this gasoline increase passes, this need won’t diminish. Augusta can debate legislation that’s measured in pennies all it wants, but it needs ideas that create real dollars. Otherwise, what is accomplished, except for spreading three-eighths-of-an-inch of asphalt and hoping for a mild winter?
The proposed gasoline tax increase is hard to swallow for many good reasons — the economy chief among them. This hike can’t even be billed as an incentive for better behavior, as the tobacco tax is, because the implications of declining consumption are so dire. The reason for this move is crystal clear.
But, then again, so was this problem. Revenue from the gasoline tax has been declining — albeit slowly — for several years. There has been more than enough time to think.
This is why the gas tax proposal is so disappointing. Despite warnings, we’re left with one solution: increased taxes; the net effect of which is pavement, not progress.
[email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.