DAY LATE AND A DOLLAR SHORT—THE CURRENT YEAR VERMONT TRANSPORTATION BUDGET
May appear strange, but the Vermont‘s $653 million State transportation budget with more than half federally funded remains a day late and dollar short.
Adding a $1 tax on gasoline or a general fund equivalent raises enough money—about $200 million yearly--enabling commuter rail services along three corridors out of Burlington, an intercity “circle train”, a head start on roundabouts and cycle track needed to make downtowns and town centers truly walkable and bikable, and a major boost to the Town Highway grants helping to relieve the local property tax burden. And the only practical choice, raising transportation taxes of this magnitude from the State general fund mostly though the income tax, also allows for some funding of additional needed social service programs.
A $1 gas tax would probably yield about $200 million, about the same relative amount as Gov. Deval Patrick in Massachusetts sought this year in new income taxes to fully fund needed transportation investments and operations for all modes plus some investment in education. What does Gov. Patrick know and why did Virginia abolish the gas tax in favor of a broad base dedicated sales tax this February? Simply both state’s governors recognized the transportation investments can no longer be tagged onto a declining mode, car travel, while the public demands more efficient and sustainable travel modes—public transit, walking and bicycling.
While New England car travel grew by just 3% the entire decade 2000-2010, public transit, walking and bicycling in many urban area grew in double digits—Burlington’s public transportation authority grew 71% 2000-2010, bicycling to work doubled and travel to work by car dropped about 10%. Vermont Census data revealed traveling to work by car flat lined from 2000-2010, the numbers walking, bicycling, taking the bus and working at home increased by 9,000. Overall, the proportion of car travel to work declined about 3% for the period and the trend shows no signs of changing any time soon.
Why the sales and income tax and not gas taxes? Massachusetts and Vermont both are raising gas taxes this year by modest amounts. But about 30 states restrict car tax revenues to highways only. This makes it very difficult for those states without such restrictions—like Vermont—from going out on their own with large gas tax increases as it would only create everyone to gas up at a lower cost in cross border areas. Besides investments in rail, public transit, walking and bicycling benefits go across the entire population.
Vermont and the U.S. lag behind several Western European nations in many health and economic indices in great part because those nations levy $3-$4 taxes on a gallon of gasoline versus about five dimes federal and state levies combined in the U.S. Those $3-$4 gas taxes enable major investments in a modern transportation system for all modes placing the U.S. decades behind in walking, bicycling, and rail modes. And that differential increases today. A viable economy—particularly the important Vermont tourism sector—depends on a full range of transportation modes for current and future viability and growth. States cannot wait for a federal gas tax to become available for meeting transportation needs arising from a declining car culture. Neither can Vermont--the State remains now a day late and a dollar short.