John McCain, the Republican party’s presidential candidate, has been promoting the idea of a “gas tax holiday,” supposedly for the summer months before the November 2008 election, to win popular support. Barack Obama, the Democratic party’s candidate for president, has called McCain’s proposal “a trick.” The idea appeals to motorists and truckers who are focused on their immediate concerns to reduce their substantial rises in motoring costs, driven by the price of fuel over the last eighteen months. The idea certainly is a trick — one more distraction tossed into the nationally televised Colosseum to prevent substantive thought. Critics of McCain’s proposal point out that fuel taxes are a significant source of revenue, generally used to maintain and improve the nation’s roads, bridges, dams and other forms of public infrastructure.
The spectacular and deadly collapse of the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis (Minnesota) during rush hour on August 1, 2007, and the June 9, 2008 bursting of the Lake Denton Dam in Wisconsin (northwest of Madison) are recent failures of deteriorated infrastructure that alarm public works agencies, who fear such events might signal a trend brought on by decades of limited attention to and investment in infrastructure improvements. The integrity of our structures and public spaces is an expense that is rarely welcomed (except by grafters of the construction and maintenance operations) until after a major disaster. We appreciate buildings that do not collapse on us during earthquakes, bridges that do not snap, and dams that do not burst. So, once we are sensitized to this concern, we are willing to pay for the imposition of higher standards on our construction industry, and inspections by public agencies. The high mortality (nearing 70,000) in the Sichuan earthquake of May 12, 2008 may be partially due to some laxity in Chinese building standards. Wherever it occurs, such laxity is always a “cost saving.”
However, domestically, immediate attention is focused on the realities of escalating fuel costs, and the constriction of USAmerican vacations and livelihoods; the people are restive and the problem has become political. In addition, we must still contend with the damaging effects to public health and the environment by the air pollution emitted by our hundreds of millions of motors. Because the sources of this pollution are concentrated in urban areas, where our major ground transportation routes intersect, and because many holiday and business travelers will find themselves at these points, a natural solution to the problem suggests itself: cut highway and bridge tolls to eliminate traffic congestion and to simultaneously increase fuel efficiency (no idling in toll booth traffic jams). Federal “highway funds” would compensate state and local governments for losses of gasoline tax revenue [toll revenue]. The elimination of congestion at the many “choke points” in our highway system would significantly reduce the production of carbon dioxide gas by the nation’s motor and truck fleet, so state and local governments could recover funds as “carbon credits” gained within their jurisdictions, once new legislation instituting carbon taxes and credits is enacted. Any motorist would welcome the reduced travel time and the reduced cost to be had by the elimination of tolls, and the more thoughtful among them would also welcome the opportunity to go about their business with greater fuel efficiency and with less emission of pollutants.
McCain’s proposal is a trick, but the concerns being exploited are real. Real solutions are available, and with a little thought they can be worked out. If you worry that the elimination of tolls would increase motor traffic and starve infrastructure maintenance of funds, fear not. “Tolls” must be thought of as including bus and train fare on the many publicly subsidized bus and rail systems. If you think about it, putting tolls on roads, busses, trains and trollies is like putting up toll booths on elevators, escalators and sidewalks — a stupid impediment that damages the public good more than can be compensated for by the fiscal return to public agencies. By eliminating congestion, we eliminate its wasteful by-products, both temporal and gaseous. This is real tax reduction.
If you still fear that with tolls eliminated, insufficient funds will be generated to maintain our high-standards toll-free infrastructure, then we do have another remedy of near limitless capacity: end the Iraq and Middle East Wars, and cut the military and its budget to that actually required for national defense without imperialistic excesses. We can do this. Why sacrifice our vacations for the war?
MANUEL GARCIA, Jr. is a post-employment physicist (I still do physics, just no paycheck), e-mail = firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is about reducing the production of entropy.