My Gas Tax Pays for WHAT? (From Trib Review)

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Dec 30 2013 at 4:10pm #

How your taxes subsidize central planning

Sunday – December 29, 2013
By Lawrence J. Mcquillan

Published: Saturday, Dec. 28, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

The next time you swipe your debit or credit card at the gas pump, you’ll be doing more than filling your tank. You’ll also be helping to finance parks, bike paths, pedestrian walkways, overlooks, viewing areas, parking lots, turnouts, “stack-and-pack” housing and government land grabs in California.

In short, you’ll be subsidizing the California lifestyle, without enjoying any of the benefits. To understand how this works, just follow the money.

When you purchase gasoline in the United States, you pay an 18.4 cent-per-gallon federal gas tax. That money goes into the Highway Trust Fund, created in 1956 to fund the construction and repair of the Interstate Highway System.

To nobody’s real surprise, over time the trust fund has become a slush fund to finance various “smart growth” projects unrelated to highways.

For example, the so-called Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), signed into law in July 2012 and funded primarily by the Highway Trust Fund, provides more than $105 billion in fiscal years 2013 and 2014 for “surface transportation programs.”

Those programs, however, include far more than roads and bridges. They also include “transit, bike and pedestrian” projects. So, according to the government, walking is now a “surface transportation program.”

But that’s not all.

Nearly $800 million of MAP-21’s money also was funneled to the OneBayArea Grant Program (OBAG). This program, coordinated with Plan Bay Area, a master plan for housing, transportation and land use in the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area through 2040, was approved by the Association of Bay Area Governments and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in July 2013.

According to official documents, the first round of MAP-21 OBAG funding commits $10 million to “Priority Conservation Areas” — primarily local government purchases of land for “long-term protection.”

This will further restrict private development in more than 100 Bay Area locations.

Your gas money also will fund Bay Area parks, bike paths, pedestrian walkways, scenic overlooks, viewing areas and even parking lots. None of this will give you or anybody else better, safer highways.

“Sustainable communities” advocates have captured the Highway Trust Fund to finance their lifestyle choices and political agenda. And it’s not just in California. Property owners in a seven-county area of South Florida — including Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties — currently are fighting a scheme similar to Plan Bay Area, called Seven50. In other words, the fever has spread from coast to coast.

Most motorists probably aren’t aware where their gas money goes. But they know from experience that many of our highways and bridges are in terrible condition.

Next time you hit one of those freeway potholes, be reminded that the money you paid at the pump to maintain our highways is being used to purchase land in Napa Valley, so wine snobs can ride their $5,000 mountain bikes.

That’s how “smart growth” really works.

Lawrence McQuillan is a senior fellow and the director of the Center on Entrepreneurial Innovation at The Independent Institute (

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My favorite line: So, according to the government, walking is now a “surface transportation program.”

Um, yes, it is……

  • This topic was modified 2 yrs, 6 mos ago by  Swalfoort.


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Dec 30 2013 at 4:21pm #

I thought the best part was the title: “How your taxes subsidize central planning.” I sure hope someone is doing some planning before they spend that money.


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Dec 30 2013 at 5:34pm #

OK, I’ll agree with him. The gas tax should only be used for fixing roads, but only under the condition that no other taxes be used for roads (i.e. no general funds, etc.). That would probably make the gas tax about ten times higher than it currently is. Hey you get what you ask for.


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Dec 30 2013 at 5:43pm #

How much do you want to bet that this very same letter appeared in 50 other newspapers nationwide? Particularly right-leaning ones like the Trib?

Just yesterday, I posted a link on Facebook about a Toronto Globe and Mail “news article” printed last week that was essentially a puff piece by and for the road building industry.

Taking that one step up, anyone want to further guess that the two articles came to be at just about the same time entirely by coincidence?

Yeah, right.

Also note, that 18 cents a gallon the guy complains about has not changed in over 20 years. It should really be about 40 cents a gallon, just based on inflation.

We can further discuss the hidden costs of providing the country with petroleum — defense, environmental cleanups, etc.


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Dec 30 2013 at 6:05pm #

Since 2008, the Congress has avoided such shortfalls by transferring $41 billion from the general fund of the Treasury to the Highway Trust Fund. The Congress has enacted an additional transfer of $12.6 billion that is scheduled to occur in 2014. If lawmakers chose to continue authorizing such transfers, they would have to transfer an additional $15 billion in 2015 and increasing amounts in subsequent years to prevent future shortfalls, if spending was maintained at the 2013 level, as adjusted for inflation.


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Dec 30 2013 at 6:09pm #

Having wine snobs riding $5,000 mountain bikes in the Napa Valley is 100% preferable to having bank execs banging eastern European hookers in the Cayman Islands courtesy of my credit card bill, so I’m completely OK with that. At least the money stays in the country. Buy American!


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Dec 30 2013 at 6:37pm #

Argh, I violated my self-imposed ban on commenting on “news” stories.

The author of this article (a “think tank” which has received funding from the oil industry) fails to mention that the HIghway Trust Fund is insolvent and has required $41 billion in transfers (read: subsidies) from the General Fund since 2008. An additional $12.6 billion is scheduled to be transferred in 2014, and the shortfall will only continue to increase in the future. Instead of taking juvenile cheap shots at relatively inexpensive programs that help alleviate congestion, perhaps the “Independent Institute” should focus on the real issue of the declining value of gas tax receipts.



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Dec 30 2013 at 6:39pm #

“Independent Institute”, that really would be comical if it weren’t so offensive.

Oh, big surprise – Koch brothers, Exxon Mobil, Philip Morris, etc.


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Dec 30 2013 at 7:22pm #

The Independent Institute? Is that like The Human Fund?


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Dec 30 2013 at 11:49pm #

you mean my gas taxes pay for transportation? how dare they tax something to mitigate the damage that thing does!


salty wrote:Oh, big surprise – Koch brothers, Exxon Mobil, Philip Morris, etc.

“follow the money”, indeed.


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Dec 31 2013 at 2:44am #

Can we please phase out fuel taxes and in their place implement a Vehicle Miles Traveled tax?

Even in the Grovernorquistian world, a VMT should be perfectly fine. Norquist himself has made clear that he is not against new taxes, just that any new taxes have to be revenue neutral. Implement one, phase out another. (source: a live KQV 1410 interview one morning)

And while I do not advocate that bicycles be included on any VMT scheme, even if they were, and there was some way to measure it accurately, the total amount of cycling done by everyone would amount to a noise level of road usage compared to a car. I think I’m up in the top 10% of road mileage, at 2,541 for the year, but that’s barely 1/5 what my own family’s car has traveled.


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Dec 31 2013 at 10:18am #

gas taxes are easy and automatic… a miles-traveled tax is complicated and invasive.

Better to just keep pointing out to the critics that the gas-tax should be HIGHER and that what we pay at the pump already amounts to a government subsidy which encourages a wasteful lifestyle. How much of our military spending is for the defense of this resource? The price at the pump should reflect that. Such individuals should also be made aware that the gasoline tax was intended to get cars off the road, so really, does it matter where the money goes? Does the critic even really care where it goes… I doubt it, they only care that they have to pay for it. Beyond that, it’s just feigned outrage and an attempt to pass the blame off on someone else.

I want to drive to my little heart’s content, give me, give me, give me! Hey, look at what that guy over there is doing!


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Dec 31 2013 at 11:08am #

Facebook is blocked here so I can’t post, with thanks to the Salty, here’s what I would (and will, if nobody does before I get home). Not that I think I’ll get much agreement, but actually, I think it’s more useful for us to take the debate to the trib rather than have it here. Get perspectives in front of readers they’re not getting otherwise. Over time minds can change.

“800 million out of 105 billion for a large metro area seems reasonably proportionate, 10 million for land use could be unrelated to transportation or could be essential in controlling erosion and flood plains so transportation infrastructure doesn’t flood wash out from underneath. In either case it’s a microscopic fracton of the total outlay and is a flimsy way to characterize the works.

You can argue either way about whether gas taxes should be plunked 100% back into maintaining and building more roadways and bridges. I’d argue since those other options could reduce your maintenance burdens over time they’re worthy of consideration as investments. Also, in urban areas, you often just don’t have the space to do motor vehicle only very well… specialization is fine, you should do what you can do well. But even if you do take that tack that gas taxes should only be for building and maintenance, not making most efficient use of what we have, the funding would be wildly inadequate.

The Independent Institute is trying to pointing to this as a reason roads and bridges stink, when there’s a lot of money from this going to roads and bridges, it’s only partially funded by the highway trust fund, and the federal highway trust fund itself runs in perpetual deficit and is only made whole by large annual infusions from general revenues. Read this, it’s pretty grim: So, the implication that your gas tax dollars should be adequate and are being wasted is entirely false.

Federal gas taxes have not risen with inflation since 1993 and still stand at 18.4c a gallon. Costs have gone up substantially. And this shortfall continues at the stage and local level, only about 1/3 of the costs of road maintenance and repairs come from use fees:

Our driving habits are expensive, more than we see at the pump. And they’re expensive to the few who can’t or don’t drive, too. There are alternatives, we just haven’t built our infrastructure in a way that makes them work very well. We have a decades long choice to make whether we continue to try and address only the effects, or whether we try to address the causes as well. The Independent Institute appears to be anything but independent in this debate. They maintains anonymity of doners, but of what is known (from the biggest sources of support are from the David H Koch Charitable foundation (money from oil refining) and Exxon Mobile. They do awfully well by the status quo. “


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Dec 31 2013 at 1:35pm #

The weird thing is the TII almost sounds like something I’d support – from the sourcewatch page I linked to earlier:

“TII has been a vocal opponent of the “war on drugs”, immigration restrictions, corporate welfare, censorship, the neoconservative (“Bush Doctrine”) of pre-emptive war, restrictions on reproductive rights, and the death penalty.”

Except they’re apparently also corporate shills for the tobacco industry, oil industry, and Microsoft… the rest of it doesn’t make much sense given that.

It’s ridiculous to villify spending 10 million or even 800 million when we’re talking about tens of billions of dollars in shortfalls. It’s a distraction tactic. BTW I learned yesterday that Ronald Reagan was actually president when the gas tax/HTF was expanded to include transit funding.

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