Two bills on the docket in the Massachusetts legislature will face a public hearing today in the House Transportation Committee. Both tackle the issue of Massachusetts’ gas tax, which is more than six cents per gallon below the national average. The bill catching the most attention is House No. 3312, sponsored by Democrat Byron Rushing of Boston, which would raise the state gas tax by a whopping fifty cents per gallon, with all revenue from going into the state’s general fund.
While the state is suffering from a projected $21.9 billion budget deficit for 2011, it may seem logical to target a non-renewable resource for additional taxes, but Massachusetts may be unwise to go to such drastic measures to penalize drivers. For one, Massachusetts is geographically narrow, and would have significantly higher gas prices than neighboring states. In addition, funneling gas tax revenue into the state’s general fund would not necessarily direct the money to funding that public transportation would need to fill the demand for drivers to leave their cars.
A second bill sponsored by Democrat Thomas Conroy of suburban Middlesex County, House No. 3188, would increase the gas tax immediately by ten cents per gallon, then add a gradual increase of one cent per quarter – or four cents per year. The major benefit of this bill is the allocation of the additional revenue, to a Transportation Trust Fund with the following priorities:
– Eliminating debt on the Big Dig
– Preventing increases in Mass Pike tolls and ultimately dismantling tolls on the turnpike
– MBTA operating and capital expenses, capping commuter rail, subway, and bus fare increases at 3% per year
– Road and bridge repair and maintenance
– Other regional transit authorities
While dismantling tolls on the Mass Turnpike may appear on the surface to be regressive in the effort to move people out of their cars, pairing the removal of tolls and the capping MBTA fare increases to an increase in the gas tax will ultimately result in road users paying their fair share through the gas tax, rather than through tolls on a single road that runs east and west. The ten-cent increase would put Massachusetts’ gas tax on par with neighboring states like Rhode Island, which could follow suit and raise gas taxes knowing that their gas stations will not face competition near the border. Also worth noting is that road expansion is not among the needs funded by the trust fund – simply maintenance of the existing infrastructure.
In a perfect world, a steep increase in the gas tax would result in an immediate decrease in driving – especially if gas climbs to over four dollars per gallon. But right now, fifty cents is steep; as long as public transportation remains sparse in some areas of Massachusetts, the gas tax remains regressive. A more gradual increase – linked to an investment in public transit – might not see the most immediate impacts, but may be the most fruitful for getting Bay Staters out of their cars and onto public transit.