Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Case for a Gasoline Tax

An op-ed by Eric Grunebaum in yesterday's Boston Globe eloquently outlines some of the most compelling arguments for a gasoline tax, specifically in Massachusetts. Unfortunately, such a tax has already been defeated twice this year in the Massachusetts legislature, and debate continues to roil over whether a gas tax or a hike in highway tolls would be more equitable.

Let me add one more argument to the article linked above. As urban sprawl becomes a bigger and bigger problem throughout the country (and the world), we need to be rethinking the way we develop, which is inextricably tied to the way we get around. Residents of western Massachusetts are bemoaning a gas tax, arguing that they will be unfairly impacted, as they will not be able to take advantage of the public transportation alternatives that easterners have at their disposal. However, maybe this sort of "inequity" is part of the solution to some of our biggest problems.

I would contend (with no empirical data) that a vast majority of the people who live in western Massachusetts, and other such areas relatively far from urban centers, are not farmers. While farmers need to be far away from cities to make a living and contribute to society, most who live in rural areas do not need to. Now I'm not going to be exceptionally radical here and argue that no one should live outside of a 20 mile radius of a major city, but I will argue that as long as you are living far away from an area that has access to public transportation, you should still have to pay a higher fare for gasoline, along with those who do have access to an alternative.

I don't see this as a punishment for suburban and rural dwellers, but rather as an incentive to live near trains, buses, and subways, and therefore push society to build upwards rather than outwards, and smartly rather than regressively. At a forum of urban planners that I attended last week, one of the members of the panel called for a $0.50 per gallon gas tax, a political unreality to be sure, but one that would no doubt help to decrease the insatiable sprawl that has been creeping through our untouched lands for centuries.

A Times article from a couple weeks ago discusses emerging suburbs that strive to eliminate the use of cars, a feat that seems daunting and perhaps impossible in today's fast-lane society. But towns like Vauban, Germany may just be the paradigms that we need to look to for a guide to modern planning and transportation strategies. And a gas tax, while not a singular solution, is a good place to start.

Images: Gas prices (good.is), exurban sprawl in Florida (Brittanica), Vauban, Germany (New York Times)

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