Friday, May 1, 2009

States look for more ways to tax motorists


Every now and then, you'll see the state or some municipality promoting a campaign to rein in "aggressive driving." Maybe they ought to turn their enforcement efforts on themselves -- and on politicians -- because nothing's more aggressive than the mounting number of plots to break into the wallets of the motoring public.
With state and local budgets being bombed by the recession - and even well before the nation's economic meltdown - it seems there's always some creative new proposal to snatch more money from drivers. Some of these programs are so insidious that the public has no choice but to fight back. Like the anti-taxation "tea parties" that recently dominated the news, drivers are rebelling against the never-ending schemes to make them pay.
There are three favored methods for "taxing" motorists. First are direct taxes, like fuel taxes and personal property taxes and age-old fees for license plates and inspections. Second are fines and penalties for driving violations, and third are tolls.
There are sinister new variations on all three. Some might serve the greater good, but most, including some ongoing programs, are nothing more than money grabs disguised as initiatives to help make driving safer or easier.
Some motorists are expressing growing outrage at automated cameras set up to nab speeders and red-light runners. These sound like noble safety-enhancing causes, but it's patently obvious the systems are designed to be revenue streams for the municipalities using them and the companies that install them.
In several challenges to red-light cameras, it was demonstrated that the duration of yellow lights was shortened to artificially increase the number of violating drivers.
The safety-improving potential of red-light cameras is questionable, anyway: In many areas, the presence of the cameras increased rear-end accidents as drivers unexpectedly and irrationally slam on the brakes to avoid a ticket.
One Ohio mayor acknowledged that the systems are created to generate revenue and proposed them specifically to help balance his city's budget deficit. AAA recently took the unprecedented step of issuing an alert for the entire state of Arizona to warn motorists about the speed-enforcement "scameras" that already have issued hundreds of thousands of tickets.
Meanwhile, several states are looking to boost tolling in newly created ways that include "privatizing" existing roads, selling the right to enact tolls on certain stretches. The fact that allowing tolls to be collected on highways built with public funds may be unconstitutional hasn't stopped the National Governors Association from pressuring the federal government to drop restrictions that get in the way of these proposals.
There are scores of plans to build privatized toll roads in many places, including the congested Capital Beltway. The private consortium building the toll road will be permitted to charge vehicles with fewer than three occupants any price it likes and will have the right to do so for 75 years.
The Indiana East-West Toll Road was sold to private investors in 2006 for about $3.8 billion, yet a study by the Public Interest Research Group says the state shortchanged itself by nearly $7.5 billion when it sold the rights to toll the 157-mile span for 75 years. Perhaps most troubling, some new road privatization proposals contain language that calls for penalties to the state if it unduly maintains or promotes "competing" free roadways.
Amidst all this quasi-disguised taxation is one idea that isn't a scam: Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, wants to markedly raise his state's gasoline tax. Although nobody wants to hear about more taxes at the moment, in this case, Mr. Deval's got it right.
As more fuel-efficient vehicles become the norm, the revenue from fuel taxes decreases, while the cost to properly maintain roads certainly isn't doing the same. If we're going to truly promote energy independence in this nation, gasoline and diesel fuel taxes have to get more in line with the rest of the industrialized world.
Copyright, Motor Matters, 2009