Gas tax unpopular, but so are roads with potholes

A study commission recently provided a smorgasbord of ideas to raise more revenue for transportation, including a fivecent increase in the state gasoline tax.

Republican Assembly leaders immediately denounced the idea of boosting the state tax on gasoline. The words "tax increase" seemed to make them gag, if not panic. They'd prefer to be known as people who reduce, rather than increase, taxes.

The study commission ruled out toll roads, noting that it would require congressional permission to apply that approach to fourlane, limited access highways which have been heavily subsidized with federal funds.

Deciding not to wait on Congress approving state authority for toll roads probably was wise. Congress has a hard time agreeing on anything that deals with money.

Among other ideas in the roadfunding mix were higher fees for vehicle registration and driver licenses. One twist would have the vehicle registration fee for each vehicle be determined by how many miles had been driven in the last year. Enforcement might depend on citizen honesty.

Another notion would exempt from the sales tax the amount of trade-in value on the purchase of a different vehicle.

On the positive political side, the alternative ideas would enable legislators to say they opposed a "tax increase" on the price of gasoline. On the negative side, that leaves the full burden of transportation-funding increases to be borne solely by Wisconsin residents.

Over the years, it has been pointed out that increasing the gasoline sales tax would share the cost of highway maintenance and expansion with non-Wisconsin drivers who pass through our state on their way to someplace else or who are vacationing here. People who fill up their gasoline tanks on their way through Wisconsin or en route to visit family or a Badger State vacation spot would bear part of the increased burden under a higher gasoline tax just as they pay a portion now

But would people stop going to the Wisconsin Dells if gasoline cost more here? Probably not. It would be less than $1 more roundtrip for Chicagoland residents who like a Dells vacation. They might not even notice the tax increase, given the way gasoline prices have bounced around for the last two years.

It's been said Americans like their cars and trucks almost as much as they love their families. With some relatives, the cars and trucks may come out far ahead in any comparison.

Politicians usually promise to improve the state's infrastructure, and they usually mean highways and roads rather than the University of Wisconsin System. Elected politicians can cut ribbons to open improved highways but there are no ribbon cutting ceremonies when it comes to improving education.

Wisconsin is among the leaders in miles of paved roads. Historians note the early paved road system, particularly the secondary roads, was established to make sure dairy farmers were able to get the milk to market.

It is expensive to maintain, improve and expand state roadways. Fuel-efficient vehicles have reduced potential gasoline tax revenues. Federal standards for the next decade will make new cars even more efficient.

One unmentioned solution could be significantly cutting government spending on roadbuilding and repair. That ought to appeal to conservatives who think government spending is driving America to ruin. Alas, many of them also like good roads.


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