Ron Cunningham: Asphalt and eggs


Published: Sunday, August 5, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 3, 2012 at 6:10 p.m.

I'm a tax-and-spend liberal. Ask anybody.

"That Cunningham," my legions of loyal readers mutter, "he never met a tax he didn't like."

Au contraire.

In fact, I'm a raging libertarian when it comes to roads.

We build roads so we can get from one place to another. And we do so overwhelmingly in privately owned vehicles, that leave potholes and cracked pavement in their wake.

I'm a user-fee-and-spend libertarian when it comes to roads. You use it, you pay for it.

Problem is, the user fee that has kept Americans rolling for generations — the gas tax — is eroding faster than the asphalt on NW 16th Avenue. For two reasons.

One, politicians are scared to death of raising gas taxes in Auto-America.

And, two, even if they weren't, our increasingly fuel-efficient vehicles guarantee that gas-tax dollars will continue to evaporate in the years ahead.

Which is why Congress is borrowing billions to help shore up the nation's transportation trust fund.

And why Alachua County commissioners want voters to approve a sales tax to help patch potholes that gas taxes can no longer cover.

But funding roads "based on how many pairs of jeans you buy" makes about as much sense as "paying your water bill based on how many eggs you eat."

That astute observation came from Ananth Prasad, Florida's transportation secretary, during a visit to The Sun last week.

He didn't drop by to argue against the county's sales-tax proposal. But simply to make the point that Americans need to have a rational conversation about how we're going to build and maintain the nation's transportation infrastructure in a post-gas-tax age.

In some respects that age has already arrived. He estimates that Florida has already lost $10 billion since 2006 due to the erosion of the gas tax. That's a lot of unfilled pot holes.

"What are we going to do when vehicles are getting 50 miles per gallon?" he wonders. Not to mention when electric vehicles start hitting the streets in significant numbers.

Filling potholes with sales, property or income-tax dollars means less money for education, health care, criminal justice and so on. And frankly, such fiscal patches won't be enough to keep our aging infrastructure from falling apart anyway.

But, a VMT fee might.

VMT is short for vehicle miles traveled. And it is the purest form of user fee imaginable.

"A fee of just one penny per mile would equal the revenue currently collected by the fuel tax," a 2010 University of Virginia report estimated.

Drive a thousand miles, pay a thousand pennies for the wear and tear you created.

The GPS and wireless technology exists to accurately measure and assess a VMT fee. But that would mean putting "government" in every car in America in the form of a computerized monitor.

And few politicians are eager to have that discussion in this tea party, get-government-off-our-backs era.

No, that discussion will probably have to wait a while.

At least until Auto-Americans get to hating potholes more than they hate government.

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