Chris Christie’s gas tax foolishness

By not budging on decades-old taxes, Republican governors keep gas artificially cheap -- and create big problems

Topics: Dream City, Taxes, Chris Christie,

Chris Christie's gas tax foolishnessLincoln Tunnel traffic (Credit: Joe Shlabotnick / CC BY 3.0)

Here’s a wild statistic: At any given moment, a third of the cars in Manhattan are just passing through on their way to somewhere else. Why? Because it’s cheaper than driving around it.

Thanks to a quirk of history, the East River bridges to Manhattan aren’t tolled, nor are the outbound Hudson tunnels — you can drive from Long Island to New Jersey for free if you go through Manhattan. Go around Manhattan, however, and you’ll hit tolls of up to $13. The system gives drivers a financial incentive to drive straight through the most crowded, most congested patch of land in the country.

With gas taxes, we make the same mistake: We artificially depress the price of fuel so that the least efficient way to get somewhere — in this case, a private car — is also sometimes the cheapest.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has given us an opportunity to discuss this absurdity. On Tuesday, the New York Times revealed the true reason he killed plans for a new rail tunnel from New York to New Jersey. Yes, he was genuflecting before Tea Party deficit hawks, but, said the paper, the decision was actually “more about avoiding the need to raise the state’s gasoline tax.”

Washington gets some flak (not nearly enough) for not raising the federal gas tax. The last time it budged, a T-Rex was chasing Jeff Goldblum, and Meat Loaf was in the Top 40. But individual states are just as guilty of keeping their gas taxes frozen, which, because of inflation, effectively adds up to more deeply discounted gas every year. Fourteen states haven’t raised their gas taxes in at least two decades, including New Jersey, which now has the nation’s third-lowest rate — it hasn’t gone up since 1988. This has caused the state’s real-dollar gas-tax revenue to fall by 40 percent. By not keeping the tax apace with transportation costs, New Jersey loses half a billion dollars a year.



When we talk about the federal gas tax being too low, we talk about the fact that keeping the price of gas down encourages sprawl and discourages sales of fuel-efficient cars — both worthy concerns. But by ignoring the problem of states refusing to raise their rates as well, we miss out on the fact that, for instance, New Jersey’s Transportation Trust Fund is now $12.5 billion in debt. Wyoming last year voted down an attempt to raise its gas tax, the country’s second-lowest, which would have allowed it to repair underground storage tanks that are leaking petroleum into the earth. And South Carolina, which borrowed $52 million from Washington last year to close a budget gap created by its super-low gas tax, recently moved to cut that tax by 10 percent more.

And why not? Gas is expensive now, right? The truth is, the price of gas is unnaturally low, held down by governors who would sooner take a handout from Washington than increase the price by a penny per gallon. This thinking is creating a fiscal disaster for state governments. And it’s put New Jersey on track to earn a dubious distinction: By mid-century, it will become the first state in America to literally run out of land. By making “drive till you qualify” so cheap, all the Garden State’s unprotected open space will be completely gone in a few short decades.

Maybe it’s best if we just drive around it.

Will Doig

Will Doig writes the Dream City column for Salon

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 10
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Romance novels need a canon

    "Bet Me" by Jennifer Crusie

    A contemporary romantic comedy set to Elvis Costello and lots of luxurious and sinful sugary treats.   Read the whole essay.

    Romance novels need a canon

    "Welcome to Temptation" by Jennifer Crusie

    Another of Crusie's romantic comedies, this one in the shadow of an ostentatiously phallic water tower.   Read the whole essay.

    Romance novels need a canon

    "A Gentleman Undone" by Cecilia Grant

    A Regency romance with beautifully broken people and some seriously steamy sex.   Read the whole essay.

    Romance novels need a canon

    "Black Silk" by Judith Ivory

    A beautifully written, exquisitely slow-building Regency; the plot is centered on a box with some very curious images, as Edward Gorey might say.   Read the whole essay.

    Romance novels need a canon

    "For My Lady's Heart" by Laura Kinsale

    A medieval romance, the period piece functions much like a dystopia, with the courageous lady and noble knight struggling to find happiness despite the authoritarian society.   Read the whole essay.

    Romance novels need a canon

    "Sweet Disorder" by Rose Lerner

    A Regency that uses the limitations on women of the time to good effect; the main character is poor and needs to sell her vote ... or rather her husband's vote. But to sell it, she needs to get a husband first ...   Read the whole essay.

    Romance novels need a canon

    "Frenemy of the People" by Nora Olsen

    Clarissa is sitting at an awards banquet when she suddenly realizes she likes pictures of Kimye for both Kim and Kanye and she is totally bi. So she texts to all her friends, "I am totally bi!" Drama and romance ensue ... but not quite with who she expects. I got an advanced copy of this YA lesbian romance, and I’d urge folks to reserve a copy; it’s a delight.   Read the whole essay.

    Romance novels need a canon

    "The Slightest Provocation" by Pam Rosenthal

    A separated couple works to reconcile against a background of political intrigue; sort of "His Gal Friday" as a spy novel set in the Regency.   Read the whole essay.

    Romance novels need a canon

    "Again" by Kathleen Gilles Seidel

    Set among workers on a period soap opera, it manages to be contemporary and historical both at the same time.   Read the whole essay.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>