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Opinion

Examiner Editorial: Virginia gas and sales tax swap is a bad idea

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Opinion,Op-Eds

You bought a bike and a helmet. You've decided to pay a higher rent so that you can walk to work. Maybe you chose an employer who pays a little less because they let you telecommute. For long trips, you opt for buses and trains.

You pay the gas tax indirectly, since it's baked into the cost of transporting the goods and services you buy, but you don't pay taxes directly at the pump because you rarely drive (or don't even own a car) and you don't contribute to commuter congestion or pollution.

Your decisions have minimized both your own carbon footprint and America's dependence on foreign oil. If more people followed your example, we'd all be better off.

Now think about the guy you knew from college a few years back who now owns an SUV and commutes 90 minutes to an office building in the city and then 90 minutes home to his McMansion. He lives in an exurban community where you can't go out for a bowl of pho or even a candy bar without getting behind the wheel of a car.

By eliminating the gasoline tax and increasing the general state sales tax, Gov. Bob McDonnell would shift the cost of building new roads to you -- who barely use them -- and away from people like your marathon-commuting friend, who will use them most.

Not only is this deeply unfair, it accelerates the government's vicious cycle of subsidizing congestion. Ronald Reagan famously and accurately said that if you want more of something, subsidize it. By building more and wider roads and disconnecting the users of those roads from their true cost, government subsidizes the 90-minute commute, unwalkable housing developments, air pollution and sprawl. Even worse, the government has encouraged Americans to embrace a lifestyle that puts their well-being at the mercy of volatile oil prices.

To be sure, the gasoline tax is an imperfect "use tax." Cars are becoming less dependent on gasoline, and some aren't dependent at all. But the solution is not to remove the connection between the cost of roads and their use, but rather to strengthen it.

New technologies like E-ZPass have made this feasible. Through its new high-occupancy toll lanes in the D.C. area, Virginia is directly connecting road usage to road cost. By charging drivers the real cost of maintaining and expanding the roads they use, HOT lanes reward economically efficient choices about where people live and work. Residential and commercial developers and employers can respond by catering to these choices.

Philosophically, both conservatives and progressives have good reasons to oppose McDonnell's plan.

That the plan represents a tremendous net tax increase is only one reason that conservatives should be troubled. The same reasons they object to government distorting the health care market are why they should object to the government distorting the natural, economically efficient development of land use and lifestyles with subsidized road construction.

Progressives should be no less offended by a plan that will result in more cars, more traffic, more sprawl, more carbon emissions and more oil consumption. This is especially true because it is paid for by a regressive sales tax that disadvantages those who choose more ecologically friendly lifestyles and a minimal carbon footprint.

Citizens of all ideological persuasions can oppose a plan that will inevitably invite the waste and corruption endemic to government revenue windfalls and major spending projects. Decisions about where roads are built, where new exits are located and what contractors get work are magnets for corruption, as those with insider connections and influence peddle their services.

That's not to say that your old college buddy out in the exurbs is a bad guy. His kids are well-behaved and his wife made a great salsa that time you all got together to watch the playoff game. But if he wants newer, wider roads so he can maintain his town and country lifestyle, he and those like him should pay for the roads themselves.

Matt Braynard is a political consultant and literary fiction author in Northern Virginia.

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