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Don't Commit a Turnover on Higher Gas Taxes

Discussion is beginning to pick up on state Rep. Billy Wayne Montgomery’s idea to raise the state gasoline sales tax by one cent a gallon. Today, the Bossier Chamber of Commerce will consider whether to endorse it, and its Shreveport version will take up the matter soon thereafter. The old ball coach is playing the good old boy game of politics here: expand the pie enough for everybody and maybe you can get something passed.

In trying to increase this from 20 to 21 cents a gallon to fund both sections of I-49 construction, not only does Montgomery bid for the support of Shreveport-area legislators, but also those stretching from the coastal parishes from Lafayette to Jefferson Parishes. Were he to secure all of their votes in both chambers, he’d already be better than halfway to getting this passed.

But support of these local delegations is far from certain. In the Shreveport area alone, Senate District 37’s Max Malone is perhaps the most anti-tax, pro-efficiency legislator in the Legislature – unless he gets outdone by House District 6’s Mike Powell who’s only been in a year and is just beginning to build that kind of record. Legislators like these will look pretty suspiciously on any tax increase.

Especially when it comes in this area of highway construction. In 1989, the state was promised with the establishment of a special additional sales tax on gas that the proceeds would go to the completion of state highway projects deemed crucial, and then the tax would roll off. Sixteen years later, only five (one just two weeks ago) of the 16 eventual projects brought into this (the TIMED program) have been completed.

Worse, Louisiana’s highway construction hardly is known as efficient. Secretary of Transportation and Development Johnny Bradberry, upon his taking the department’s helm last year, suggested that some not insignificant cost savings from more efficient use of resources loomed on the horizon. Comparative statistics back him up on this; per capita spending on highway in Louisiana, comparing the weighted average of itself and Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Texas, was 4.7% higher in 2001. Montgomery’s plan would push the Louisiana average close to 10 percent higher.

Actually, what Montgomery ought to do first is get his legislative colleagues to take away Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom’s slush fund of $12 million a year (from the now completed boll weevil eradication program) that he can devote to whatever projects he pleases. He’s already trying to leverage that into building sugar mills when those in the private sector are shutting down. Keeping in mind the 9-to-1 match of federal highway dollars to states’, the amount that’s already gone under Odom’s control could have paid for completing the segment of I-49 from Shreveport north.

The fact is, slapping yet another tax on users of Louisiana-sold fuel would allow too much inefficiency to continue to permeate the state’s government. I-49 completion should be a top priority, but a state truly committed to this has the resources at hand to do it without yet another tax hike.


Doug said...

Comparative statistics back him up on this; per capita spending on highway in Louisiana, comparing the weighted average of itself and Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Texas, was 4.7% higher in 2001.Hey, uh Jeff. Think this might have something to do with Louisiana having all those swamps, rivers, bridges, and the accompanying higher per-mile construction costs those features result in? Well over half the highways in the state travel over water at some point, and bridges aren't cheap to build or maintain. It's the price we pay for living in such a beautiful (polluted) sportsman's paradise.

I don't think a one-cent tax on gasoline is gonna hurt anybody but the people dumb enough to keep buying V8-powered Suburbans and Excursions.

Jeff Sadow said...

And Mississippi doesn't have much of the same, although on a smaller scale? Or that it's not expensive to build roads in and around mountainous terrain in Arkansas and Texas (add to Texas' burden long stretches in the deserts and plains)? My father the civil engineer is the expert in this regard, but my guess is when you add it all up, the cost of building a road in Louisiana isn't significantly more than most anywhere else (try building one in Alaska, for example).

What makes the tax hike case worse is the low quality of the state's roads to begin with. Check out the latest data as reported here. Why should a state spending above average in its region in a per capita sense be second from the bottom in road quality nationwide?

Doug said...

And Mississippi doesn't have much of the same, although on a smaller scale? What's Mississippi's equivalent of I-10 across the Atchafalaya? Or the Atchafalaya itself? Drive to Florida on I-10 and let me know how many miles of elevated roadway you traverse in Mississippi. Once you hit Alabama, you can stop counting, but you won't see much after the Mississippi-Lousiana border.

What about Mississippi's equivalent of I-49, which passes through about 60 miles of swampy land between Opelousas and Alexandia? I mean, have you been to Mississippi? The state is largely dry...

Or that it's not expensive to build roads in and around mountainous terrain in Arkansas and TexasWith all due respect, Texas doesn't have "mountains". The Texas hill country is densely populated, if you compare it to the wastelands within 200 miles of El Paso, but the rolling hills around the Guadeloupe river aren't exactly tough to build on or maintain compared to routes like Louisiana's 190 or I-10. Arkansas' mountains aren't exactly in the path of commerce, either.

(add to Texas' burden long stretches in the deserts and plains)?The ones that handle virtually no traffic? Seriously, have you ever driven out there? No one uses the roads; the only thing wearing on the tarmac is weather, which while I'll admit is severe is no comparison to the wear that an 8000-lb SUV or an 18-wheeler causes when slamming it's tonnage from expansion joint to expansion joint.

So yeah, I think charging people an extra penny per gallon to maintain Louisiana's roads is more than fair. In fact, tack on a whole nickel for any registered vehicle over 5000 lbs GVW not primarily used for passenger travel. These heavy and huge vehicles are ruining the difficult to build and expensive to maintain roads of our state - especially I-10 between Lafayette and New Orleans.

I mean, what are these heavy indiustrial users going to do, not use I-10? Virtually anything that has to be trans-shipped between three of the top ten ports (that'd be Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Houston) in the nation goes through Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Lake Charles on a truck.

No highway here in California is nearly as bad on a consistent basis as I-10 between Houston and New Orleans. Not even I-5 between Sacramento and Stockton, which is woefully under-laned (and is four lanes, just like most of I-10). In addition, truckers in California tend to be well-trained long-haulers - professionals who don't do things like swing wildly into the left lane just to pass another truck. I only come back to Louisiana four or five times a year, but on each and every time I get on I-10, I either see an accident caused by or involving an 18-wheeler transshipping goods from port to port. I think asking them to spend a little more on diesel might weed out some of the more dangerous truckers who are so hazardous to Louisiana's citizens.

Why isn't Louisiana charging those ill-trained, left-lane-using and (without exception rude) truck-driving yahoos an extra five cents per gallon of diesel? The smart ones would just fill their saddle tanks in Beaumont anyway, but from what I've seen, most would be running out of diesel somewhere between Lafayette and Lake Charles.

It's not like they're going to drive around Louisiana or anything.

Virtually nothing transhipped between these ports is comsumed in Louisiana or Texas, so the cost of good sold won't be inflated either. Louisiana justly reclaims some money from the same truckers who are ruining our roads and the quality of driving on those roads, at an added cost to the trucker of about fifteen dollars per trip. Vanishingly small when you look at the total costs for those transshipments or the fact that Houston and Southern Louisiana rank as two of the top six ports in the world for total tonnage shipped.

So: raise registation fees for heavy private "light trucks" like Suburbans, Excursions, F-350s and the like - and close the commerical vehicle loophole for small trucks "used" in home businesses that never carry cargo or passengers.

Take back the money normal people are paying to subsidize the roads that are by vastly over-used by heavy trucks and 18-wheelers that cause the most damage.

Your vehement opposition to a one cent per gallon tax isn't reality-based; one can't be oppposed to all new taxes and still understand that government needs to change it's funding to match demands placed upon it by the citizens.

I don't understand how twenty cents a week extra is going to put any regular comuters in the poorhouse - but charging the heaviest and most destructive users of our roads an extra nickel per gallon in a addition to the penny on all fuels proposed by Billy Wayne Montgomery could go a long way to making our roads more pleasant, safer, and perhaps most of all, better patrolled.

Jeff Sadow said...

I could talk about the roads in challenging ares in West Texas, or along the Mississippi River and its tributaries in the eponymous state (I taught there for two years and grew up in Texas). I could bring out the heavy artillery to give expert opinion that, in general, road-building in Louisiana is hardly any more challenging than those places. But let's just stay with your example, I-10. Let's be generous and argue that the swampy conditions etc. take up 250 miles of it. And then add to it the same for other state roads and U.S. 90, even 190. Guess what, that's still only 3 percent of the state's total miles. Most of the rest of the state's roads are built on, so to speak, very conventional soil and terrain. Unless it's magnitudes more expensive to build and maintain in those conditions (it's not), there's no way that could cause the per capita amount to go up so much. The argument you make simply won't fly.

I do see your agenda when you bring up the subject of size of vehicle and taxation on that. I'll grant you high fees on very heavy trucks are appropriate because of the wear and tear they produce on the roads (note, though, that Louisiana does not have a high per capita interstate mileage, only 874 miles of interstate -- Mississippi's is higher, for example).

But it's ridiculous to justify higher fees, whether directly or indirectly by a sales tax (because they use more gas) on passenger vehicles like passenger trucks and SUVs because they're bigger. They don't weigh a significant amount more than smaller vehicles so they don't damage roads any more, and the government thus has no moral claim on expropriating additional monies from people just because they choose to drive a certain type of vehicle.

In fact, if any additional tax were placed on vehicles, it should go on people who choose to drive smaller cars. These are deathtraps compared to larger vehciles, and a special tax on them would result in fewer deaths on the road -- government doing what so many on the left want it to do, saving us from ourselves. I'd say that's a more compelling moral case than the scenario of taxing larger vehicles only because they are larger.

Doug said...

I could talk about the roads in challenging ares in West TexasYou mean those roads that very few people ever drive on and that may require repaving after a flash flood washes away the road once every twenty years or so? Or the ones that are built on sand and loose gravel in places where everyone with business on the road has a four-wheel-drive and a winch anyway?

Let's be generous and argue that the swampy conditions etc. take up 250 miles of it. And then add to it the same for other state roads and U.S. 90, even 190. Guess what, that's still only 3 percent of the state's total miles.Let's be generous and argue that your heart has a volume of a half-pint. And then add to it the same for your aorta and other major arteries. Guess what? That's still only a tiny fraction of the capacity of your circulatory system! And only 100% of your blood has to flow through those few vessels!

With your “deathtrap” comment, you seem to be arguing that we all drive vehicles that consume as much gasoline as possible; cars and truck (but mostly trucks!) that get people from point A to point B in the least efficient manner possible. I think I have a better idea: people can drive what they can really need and can afford while we levy a progressive tax against the fuel that goes in these vehicles to improve and repair the roads we already have.

By it's very definition, a gas tax is a progressive tax. Can't afford the tax? Use less gas! This isn't tough, and typically involves making a decision to buy an "unfashionable" minivan or sedan instead of a ground-pounding three to four ton SUV.

Instead, you argue for a regressive source of funding that punishes everyone equally, although not all people will gain equal benefits. This is a very Republican way of thinking, I might add.

Most of the rest of the state's roads are built on, so to speak, very conventional soilMost of the state's roads are built on alluvial soil. In fact, most of the state is built on alluvial soil. Just because it’s red when you dig into it doesn’t mean it won’t turn into slippery mud just as fast as the brown stuff.

The problem isn't the soil per se, but the depth of the water table beneath it. Ever visit New Orleans? They have a problem with their water table; it's above most of the city, so they can't bury airtight coffins in their "conventional" soil. And they have the worst roads in the state - not simple coincidence, I can assure you.

A high water table, unfortunately, is the burden of living in such a beautiful state. It makes building and keeping roads tough, especially south of Alexandria, where I might add, most of the people live.

They don't weigh a significant amount more than smaller vehicles so they don't damage roads any more, and the government thus has no moral claim on expropriating additional monies from people just because they choose to drive a certain type of vehicle.This, my friend, is where you really go off the tracks. Let's take the example of a typical "luxury car" driven by snotty liberals like me.

A 1996 Infiniti G20 gets 33 m.p.g. and weighs 3600 pounds wet with a full load of (four) passengers.

A 2003 Ford Excursion gets about 11 m.p.g. and weighs over 9000 pounds wet with a full load of (twelve) passengers.

Here's the tough part. The Excursion actually gets comparable mileage per person fully loaded, but when is the last time you saw anyone driving one with more than two people in it, much less twelve people?

The Excursion still weighs over four tons and still gets 12 m.p.g. without all the extra people in it, but I'll be using less than one-third of the gasoline per mile while I drive to work alone. And the two vehicles cost about the same in constant dollars.

Oh - as an aside, my "deathtrap" was replaced with a 1996 model deathtrap in 1995 after slamming into a truck that backed suddenly into my path while I was driving 60 miles per hour. Walked away from a totalled car and a totalled truck because my car has low mass and intelligently designed crumple zones. I shudder to think of what would have happened had I hit that same truck with a vehicle that weighed nearly three times as much, (most of it in the front third) and had a higher center of gravity. Likely, someone would have been very badly hurt, because that big ass truck would have kept going a lot further without the benefit of my control to keep it out of the ditch, away from oaks, and right-side up.

(You keep on thinking a big truck will save your life. It won't, unless you hit something a lot smaller than you and there are no ditches or trees around for miles.)

Back to my point - an extra penny per gallon is gonna kill you? What's _your_ agenda? My "agenda" is rooted in the beliefs that you claim to stand for - don't impose your greed on people unfairly.

Well you know what? Every single Suburban and Excursion (8900 lbs curb weight) out there is using more than their fair share of the oil that costs money, lives and political capitol to get out of the ground. They also wear out the roads faster than my car. They should pay more at the pump through a progressive tax for which they only pay based on what they use. Wanna pay less tax? Use less gas. Suck it up. Or not.

Is there anyone driving a car in Lousiana that can't afford the extra twenty cents per fill-up after a $300/mo. car payment, a hundred or two for insurance each month, and the extra fifty or so a month that most people burn up in maintenance/consumables for their cars?

(I think that you're just opposed to any and all new taxes, no matter what, right? I mean, that's a popular belief to have these days. Probably gets you a lot of reactionary readers who think anything Republican is right, that Bill Clinton's blowjob was a danger to the country. and that we should have invaded Iraq anyway, despite the fact that it's us in the blue states who are the targets of the terrorists.)

In fact, if any additional tax were placed on vehicles, it should go on people who choose to drive smaller cars. These are deathtraps compared to larger vehciles, Um, small vehicles being safer overall notwithstanding, how does this relate to the funding of road construction and maintenance? Does a Hyundai cost Louisiana's taxpayers more money somehow if the small car driver gets killed by an Excursion?

Here's an equation you should check out: force=mass*acceleration.

An SUV going 75m.p.h. down the highway is a lot more deadly to it's occupants and anything in it's path than a smaller car designed to absorb impacts properly that happens to weigh half as much (going the same speed).

That small car also inflicts much less stress on the roadway. You may think that because rubber (tires) is soft and concrete (the road) is hard, that a tire equals a tire equals a tire. Unfortunately for the road, that’s not true! The speed and weight of the vehicle supported by the tire are significant factors.

Let's be generous and argue that the swampy conditions etc. take up 250 miles of it. And then add to it the same for other state roads and U.S. 90, even 190. Guess what, that's still only 3 percent of the state's total miles.Does the concept of vehicles per mile per day divided by tonnage per mile not register with you?

Yeah, I guess when you use figures like total mileage, I-10 looks the same as any 250-mile dusty road, but it happens to carry more traffic than any other road in the state, and more than most of them combined. Add I-49 to I-10, and I’ll bet you have more than half the vehicle miles traveled per day in the state, and probably 60-70% of the tonnage.

Here's something we know about in California: any construction on heavily used roads incurs higher costs not just for repair, but in lost worker-hours, lost real money (unless everyone shuts off their cars while waiting), and lost productivity while people wait in the backup. You've been stuck in traffic behind DOTD while they fix a pothole; if you had that time back, what would you do with it? Make more money? Spend more money somewhere? I'll bet you would. So would I!

You know that giant hole in the ground between Opelousas and Church Point on I-49? It's where the dirt to elevate 80 miles of I-49 came from. You think that didn't cost a little more per mile than grading a 25-foot swath of swamp and putting some concrete in it? You probably don't think mud settles, either.

I know that up there in Shreveport you're too busy playing "We're Texas east, but with gambling!" and rubbing the sound of B-52s out of your ears to notice, but below Alexandria, it really is tough to keep things like roadbeds from settling after you pour all that heavy concrete into them and run 18-wheelers up and down them. Unfortunately, those darned roads never settle evenly. They crack - usually tipping backward into the direction of traffic and exposing the edge of the following block, subjecting it to more wear, shock, and – yes – settling.

See, when big trucks (and even your 9000 pound Excursion) hit those tilted blocks of Interstate, it makes the road deteriorate faster than if one of those little "deathtraps" hit the same crack. In fact, if you remember where your calculator is, you can figure out exactly how much by using the f-m*a equation. I wasn’t very good at math, but even I can manage it.

As much as you seem not not want to admit it, "light trucks" like Hummers, 'Burbans, and Excursions (plus their bed-equipped bretheren the "working truck") weigh more, cause more damage to roads and highways, and they use a lot more gas. The owners who insist on driving them in the face of more economical and useful alternatives should pay for the privilege of using more than they really need to. See, we used to have a progressive income tax in the United States, up until about four years ago, where poor people didn’t pay much and rich people paid a lot of taxes, but King George managed to set that progress back a bit.

Thus, my zeal for the progressive cent-per-gallon gasoline tax. Progressive, because it doesn't force the Honda-driving commuter trying to get from Metarie to the CBD to pay nearly as much as it hurts the soccer mom too vain to drive anything that isn't at least a foot off the ground. See, it's progress!

note, though, that Louisiana does not have a high per capita interstate mileage, only 874 miles of interstate -- Mississippi's is higher, for example).Jeff: Just because all those big trucks have Texas license plates doesn’t mean they’re actually in Texas. When they’re in Louisiana, they still cause our roads to wear. People from out of state use our roads too, and luckily, they also buy gas in Louisiana, so a progressive gas tax will affect them as much as it does our fair citizenry.

While Louisiana may have fewer miles of interstate total than Mississippi does, said Interstate is used MUCH more heavily, and with the proportions skewed toward out of state, commercial traffic - especially in the southern half of the state, which happens to be between the two largest ports in the nation. I refer to my earlier post about the heavy and nearly constant stream of traffic on I-10 as opposed to, say, I-55 between Slidell and Jackson, which is largely cars, largely above the water table, and largely in good shape.

Guess where most of I-49 is? Guess where I-10 is? I'm sure you think I-20 is the best road since the via Strada, but you can't deny that everything that comes into this state on a boat and goes anywhere else in this country is going to take a ride on I-49 or I-10 at some point. Thus my appeal for an added tax on diesel to support the added need for law enforcement, road repair, and lane upgrades to the state's southern and north-to-south interstates.

Since we haven't figured out how to get large ships out of the Mississippi and over to Houston without the time consuming task of steaming around the LOOP and Gulf of Mexico for a few days, trucks are currently the favored method of interstate (there's that word again) shipping.

SO. Which do you think is smarter - charging an extra penny per gallon for a commodity that is currently cheaper than water but tougher to extract than most industrial metals? Or, should we just forget about making people pay according to how much they use and just outlaw Hondas?

I'm assuming you're a Republic(an) party, because you seem to think this a country where the rich and the middle class are treated equally, as long as it comes to how much you're paying in taxes.


I found your blog through the Suspect Device web site, and I after reading your response, I happen to agree with his assessment; you may be the worst in the state.

Last, and not least, I hope all the people who read your "column" check this web site out. Our little disagreement here might actually make them think, although I'll bet they'll just call me a terrorist or a liberal or something equally sinister.

Jeff Sadow said...

Sigh. Let's break this into two questions, the first being the "road cost" question. I'll roll out the heavy artillery on this one in a subsequent post. One piece of advice, use verifiable facts rather than impressions -- for example, does Louisiana or Mississippi have more truck-miles per year on their interstate miles? Your argumentation would be much more convincing if you could. (I must warn you, though, relying on facts rather than emotions has a tendency to turn liberals into conservatives, so be careful!)

On the other, more philosophical question of "taxation:" first, a correction -- a gasoline sales tax is not progressive, it's neutral. "Progressive" taxation occurs when the proportional size of the tax as part of the total cost increases relative to the proportion of the product cost as the per unit product cost increases. Since the gas tax is per unit, not varying by the cost of the gas itself, it is neutral. Add a cent to it, it's still neutral, not progressive.

It would be a policy decision to try to work out a scheme where gas buyers of larger cars paid more in gas sales tax. Note in a sense such a (neutral) tax already is with us: sales tax on sales of larger vehicles are higher and this can go to road maintenance (governments can do these things!).

Certainly, larger vehicles over time will cause more degradation of roads, even if differences are slight. But the question is whether a sliding scale of taxation should be put in place on passenger vehicles to pay for it. Certainly not; government should not be creating inducements that reduce vehicle safety (incidentally, all your argumentation fails when it comes to the issue of one-car accidents --; it's that "fact" thing again) or restricting people's choices in terms of with what capacity to have to haul people or goods. I support your ability to choose the type of car you want; I'm not in favor of restricting your choice through disincentives that serve no sufficient public purpose.

You keep getting sidetracked on this idea that extra taxation won't "kill" you. That's not the point; the point is that government's coercive power of taxation is an awesome power ripe for abuse, and that it should be used only under an extremely heavy burden of proof. You can't tax somebody just because they have the wherewithal to pay for it; the moral question is whether government has the right to that "extra" money, given its purposes for using it, the abilities of the people that have it to use it more productively, and who is targeted to give it. In this case, it doesn't.

Finally, I am honored that a website known for its shortness on fact and logic, and excess of emotion in argumentation, has given me such an appellation! When you can't present a convincing argument, resort to name-calling. They shall be known by their enemies, and by that standard this young blog is succeeding riotously.

Jeff Sadow said...

As promised, commentary from an expert. He is a civil engineer, a P.E. licensed in numerous states, of over 50 years experience, much of that time dealing with projects in and around Louisiana. His main area of emphasis has been in wastewater treatment but also has worked on projects dealing with highways such as runoff and drainage. As such, he has been an officer of state and national associations and has won prestigious honors in his career. His thoughts:

"There have been discussions on why so many LA highways are in poor shape. While a great degree of the problem lies in the fact that much dedicated roadway monies have been appropriated for other less important political usage, poor management/leadership and planning within the Dept. itself still exists, a philosophy of deferring maintenance until it becomes a
semi-crises, poor quality control of actual construction [just consider I-20 as an ongoing example] and overall acceptance of semi-corrupt activities
within State government [continuance of the third world/banana republic outlook] still prevails.

"However there is some merit in considering unusual LA design conditions. Exemplified by I-20, many right of way soil conditions here are unstable [high clay] and moisture bearing. Original designs did not consider proper shoulder drainage of the subgrades [which is now recognized] resulting in premature settlements and inflexible slab failure. You will recall much of
the Texas and Miss. systems use asphalt, which is a more flexible paving and subject to easier maintenance. This poor design [and irregular construction and limited inspection] has cost the State dearly and continues, in part to exist. Coupled with this, consider all the swamp crossings in southern LA
that has required the extensive use of elevated causeways that are very expensive.

"Because of all these factors it is difficult to directly measure one entity against another. However it is safe to observe that LA roadway conditions are mostly unsatisfactory, largely due to poor past practices; thus in today's monetary climate, it is very hard to catch up. We are unfortunately saddled by the past.

He makes no judgment on whether a higher per capita expense is due to compensation for poor past practices, overall more difficult road conditions, and/or inefficiency within the Department of Transportation and Development. Let's say it's all three. If so, then our first priority is to wring inefficiency out of the Department, because unless that is done first, that guarantees continued problems. Note also that the proposed tax is to cover new construction, not to make up for past mistakes. Thus, the case against this tax stands. To allow it would not be the incentive to produce the reform necessary.