Pay Here & Get Gas

The gasoline tax comes with its share of controversies. Add another one to the mix as a leading transportation columnist says it’s simply wrong to call the gas tax a user fee. Find out why he says that is important in the battle for future transportation infrastructure funding. Alex Marshall of Governing opines:

I went to the grocery store today and bought an apple. While eating it, I complained that proceeds from the sales tax I paid were used for other things than agricultural support programs.

This made-up anecdote is similar to how highway advocates, who I’ll call “road firsters,” talk about the gas tax, which they erroneously label a “user fee.” Road firsters criticize the planned high-speed rail lines for needing subsidies while saying that the gas tax is actually a user fee, which means roads are self-sufficient. This is logically and factually wrong.

A gas tax might appear to be a user fee at first, because you need gas to drive. But this confuses the meaning of the term.

To qualify as a user fee, you must have a choice as to whether or not you pay it. It also must relate directly to a particular service that you can accept or reject, and to the number of times you use that service.

When it comes to roads, a toll on a highway or bridge is a true user fee. If you don’t want to pay to travel on a limited-access expressway or bridge, you can choose a different route. And every time you use a particular highway or bridge with a toll, you pay a fee. You don’t pay one toll and then use the Golden Gate Bridge as many times as you like.

The same is true about paying a fee to enter a national park. That’s a true user fee. You can choose not use a park if you don’t like the fee.

But pretty much everyone in this country, except for a tiny percentage of people living in cities like New York, have to drive—to jobs, schools and grocery stores. We can’t choose not to buy gas any more than we can choose not to buy food.

Plus, once we pay the gas tax, we have no choice about where the money goes. When I fill up my car with gas, I can’t choose that the tax money goes to repair the potholes on my street instead of the brand new interchange on the other side of the state. However, once I do pay the gas tax, I can use one stretch of road or a bridge as many times as I like with no additional charge. That’s not a user fee. There’s a reason the gas tax is called a tax—because it is one.