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Opinion: Raise My Gas Tax, Please!

Paying a little more per gallon isn’t as big a burden as the cost of added debt or the damage to the environment.

If you’ve been following Mark Magyar’s excellent series of articles here at NJ Spotlight on funding the state’s transportation needs, you know how dire the situation has become. Rather than identify new resources for funding transportation projects, our politicians have chosen to borrow and put us more into debt. Now, the full $900 million that comes into the Transportation Trust Fund through taxes and tolls goes exclusively to debt service -- with no state funds available for any new transportation projects. If it weren’t for a last-minute reprieve allowing the state to count Turnpike capital investments toward the required match for federal dollars, New Jersey would have no way at all to maintain its failing transportation infrastructure.

Raising the gas tax would seem the most sensible way to address the situation, and some legislators have even had the courage to say so. Unfortunately, the prevailing opinion -- one shared by Gov. Chris Christie -- is that New Jerseyans are already over-taxed and that life is tough enough without having to shell out a few more cents on the gallon to top their tanks.

But the prevailing opinion is wrong -- and anything but smart.

Refusing to raise the gas tax actually shows disregard for the burden on commuters and residents. Simply refinancing the outstanding bonds yet again, as the Governor and Legislature seem likely (if not determined) to do, carries a huge cost in terms of added interest. Guess who pays that interest?

And what about the cost of deferring needed maintenance of our highways, bridges and mass transit systems? Is that really an option if we want our economy to rebound? Have you priced new tires, shocks and suspension lately for your car? And for those of you who take the train or bus to work, how are you liking those higher mass transit fares?

Raising the gas tax to renew the Transportation Trust Fund is probably the best thing that could happen to New Jersey taxpayers and drivers. To put things into perspective, the current motor fuels tax has not been raised for more than 22 years, standing at 10.5 cents per gallon on gasoline and 13.5 cents per gallon on diesel -- which is lower than 46 other states. That in itself might not be a reason to raise a tax, but it does provide some comparison as we sort out the options.

An increase in the gas tax, especially if it is imposed in several stages, makes sense. First, New Jersey is a corridor state, and we have lots of out-of-state cars and trucks that use our roads and thus hasten the deterioration of our highways and bridges. An increase in the motor fuels tax makes those out-of-state drivers who help cause the problem contribute to the solution, as opposed to all of the other schemes that give these drivers a “free ride,” such as the pay-as-you- go capital funding in the annual budget approach (not that we have the money to do that anyway these days).

Second, would it really be so terrible if we actually had a financial incentive to drive fewer miles, or buy more efficient vehicles? We might even have less traffic and road rage to endure, and would be more inclined to take the train or the bus or at least carpool. And, if some of us decided to give up our monster SUVs and purchase more fuel-efficient vehicles, we could all enjoy some cleaner air, save a ton on medical expenses from asthma and emphysema, and maybe even help a few folks in the auto industry keep their jobs.

Then there’s the whole matter of reducing our carbon emissions, so that our kids won’t have to tread water when sea levels rise in our coastal state, or wear SPF-500 when they venture outside in a warming climate.

So please, Gov. Christie and the Legislature, do me a big favor and raise my gas tax in order to save me a few bucks before you take out another home equity loan to refinance the Transportation Trust Fund. Frankly, a lot of us cannot afford your other schemes, and I’m really hoping the new tires I just had to put on my car after driving on our lousy Garden State roads will last a few more years.

Michael Catania is president of Conservation Resources, a non-profit organization. He is a former Deputy Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. The views expressed in this article are entirely his own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservation Resources.

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