The popularity of tolls among transportation planners here in Georgia and across the country represents a failure of leadership among elected officials. If you dare to look a little deeper, it also reflects a lack of financial maturity among voters who put those officials into office.
The reason for the turn toward tolls is glaringly simple: transportation planners need revenue. The traditional source of transportation funding in this country, the federal motor fuels tax, stands at 18.4 cents a gallon and hasn’t been increased since 1993.
Because it hasn’t kept pace with inflation, the tax today has less than half the buying power it had 18 years ago. And that has serious consequences. According to the World Economic Forum, which studies economic competitiveness, our failure to invest has pushed the United States down to 23rd in the world in terms of infrastructure, and the long-term trends are not looking good.
China, for example, invests 9 percent of its GDP in water and transportation infrastructure; Europe invests 5 percent. We invest 2.4 percent. In a country as sprawling as the United States, with low population density and relatively long distances between cities, that’s grossly inadequate. In fact, in a global economy dependent on the efficient movement of goods and people, that’s a strategy for long-term decline.
That same anti-tax dynamic plays out on a smaller scale here in Georgia. We have an economy that is highly dependent on transportation, warehousing and tourism/hospitality. Yet to support that economy, we have one of the lowest gasoline taxes in the country and one of the lowest per capita rates of transportation investment.
That is not a sustainable situation. Yet rather than make the tough decision to raise the gasoline tax a few pennies at a time, our elected officials chose to punt the question to voters through the proposed regional transportation tax, with uncertain results.
That same lack of courage was also apparent last summer, when Gov. Nathan Deal intervened to stop a scheduled increase in the state gasoline tax of 1.6 cents a gallon. With gas prices fluctuating 10 cents a gallon or more on a seemingly weekly basis, and with the state transportation budget running dry, a tiny increase of a penny and a half a gallon was somehow deemed intolerable to the people of Georgia.
If you want to know why tolls are discussed more and more often, that mindset explains it. Rather than have legislators raise taxes by a small amount on everybody, which is politically dangerous, it’s safer to have unelected bureaucrats slap tolls on a much smaller part of the population. And if that doesn’t sound fair to you, it isn’t.
In the future, for example, if you live and drive in most of Georgia, you’ll continue to pay a state and federal gasoline tax. But if you live and drive in certain areas of the Atlanta metro area, you are likely to be paying those gasoline taxes plus a daily toll as well.
The truth is, it’s hard to beat the gasoline tax in terms of efficiency and fairness. Everybody who drives pays the tax, and the more you drive, the more you pay. And because the tax is paid at the gasoline or diesel pump, it is collected much more efficiently and at much less cost than are tolls.
To counter that argument, advocates of tolling claim that the emergence of electric vehicles will soon make the gasoline tax outdated, requiring alternative means of raising revenue. But the facts don’t bear that out. While electric vehicles have their place, they are not going to displace gasoline and diesel fuel anytime in the foreseeable future.
To the contrary, according to projections by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, our consumption of gasoline and diesel fuel for transportation will grow twice as fast over the next 20 years as it did the previous 20 years.
In the end, we face three alternatives: 1., a small, steady increase in state and federal fuel taxes until their buying power is restored; 2., a significant increase in the use of tolls and other mechanisms to raise revenue; or 3., a continued lack of investment in infrastructure, with a significant decline in economic competitiveness.
Alternative 1 may be the toughest politically. It is also the wisest.