Gas tax holidays are a temporary fix; let’s address the roots of oil dependence

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The price of gas is through the roof. For many Americans, that’s causing economic pain. To address this pain, politicians from across the political spectrum are pushing for a gas tax holiday — a temporary suspension of the taxes that typically pay part of the cost of building and maintaining roads and bridges — as a way to provide relief for drivers at the pump. With so many of us affected by high gas prices, it’s no wonder that political leaders want to find ways to help.

But to really help consumers, we need more than a gas tax holiday — we need solutions that provide relief now without further deepening our dependence on cars and oil over the long haul.

Over the last century, America has built a transportation system that makes it easy to drive and hard to do almost anything else. As an unintended consequence, car-centric policies have also left us with choking traffic, polluted air and an emerging climate disaster. And they leave us vulnerable to oil price shocks caused by events over which we have no control, such as armed conflict half a world away.

Keep in mind that, as expensive as gasoline is now, it would be even more expensive if drivers had to pay the full cost of their travel.

While American gas taxes and vehicle fees are widely believed to cover the cost of building and maintaining roads, the fact is that they don’t — and haven’t for a very long time. Today, gas taxes and other vehicle fees cover only about half the cost of roadway construction and maintenance. 

In addition, every mile of driving imposes costs on all of us — drivers and non-drivers alike — in dirtier air, noise, death and injury on the roads and greenhouse gas emissions. A recent study by Harvard researchers found that road transportation in the United States cost $260 billion per year in climate and health damages — more than $750 in damages for every man, woman and child in the U.S. each year.

One obvious way to stop the damage would be to provide more and better alternatives to driving, such as rail, regional transit, walking and biking. But restrictions on how transportation funding can be spent have stood in the way of these healthier and safer alternatives.

The result is that in some American cities and many suburbs, it’s cheaper to drive a car than to take a bus — and that’s if you can find a bus at all. Some states charge higher fees for operating an electric vehicle than they collect in gas taxes from gasoline-powered cars. That’s nuts. 

A gas tax holiday may help consumers’ pocketbooks in the short run, but it will leave Americans just as vulnerable to the next crisis. 

There is a better way: Policymakers can take concrete steps right now to help drivers with high gasoline prices, while building a long-overdue off-ramp from dependence on cars and oil.

How about providing a “holiday” on transit fares? Or suspending state electric vehicle fees to make owning an EV cheaper than owning a gas-powered car? States, cities or even individual employers could provide emergency incentives for carpooling, or boost funding for workplace programs that help workers find cleaner commuting options.

Policymakers could provide subsidies to offset the cost of e-bikes or conventional bikes. Or even pay people to ditch their cars altogether — bringing down demand for oil and easing price pressures for everyone. Maybe we could even take a portion of the funds earmarked for wasteful and unnecessary highway projects and spend them on increasing transit service or repurposing street space for pedestrians and cyclists.

These ideas make sense, and not just for the United States. Last week, the International Energy Agency came out with a 10-point plan to reduce oil use in a hurry, including remote work, “car-free” days in cities, reduced speed limits and a faster transition to electric vehicles. Adopting all 10 steps, across the world’s advanced economies, could reduce oil demand by 2.7 million barrels a day within the next four months — reducing upward pressure on oil prices while also helping the environment and improving our health.

The current gas price spike is just the latest reminder that our dependence on oil leaves us all over a barrel. To protect ourselves now and in the future, we need to think beyond short-term solutions and take steps to end our oil dependence once and for all.

Matt Casale is the director of environment campaigns for U.S. PIRG, a public interest advocacy organization that speaks out for a healthier, safer world in which we’re freer to pursue our own individual well-being and the common good.

Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst at Frontier Group, a public policy organization that provides information and ideas to build a healthier, more sustainable America.

Tags Electric vehicles Energy policy Fossil fuels Fuel prices gas prices Gas tax holiday Inflation oil dependence Public Transit Public transportation Transportation

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