Whoever wins, raise the gas tax

An open letter to whoever wins on Tuesday.

Dear Mr. President:

Please raise the gasoline tax.

The country needs to keep moving toward using less imported oil, which means less use of oil, period. The federal government has mandated higher fuel-economy standards. That’s a first step.

But we tried that before in an era of cheap gas, and it failed. You can take gas-sipping cars to the consumers, but you can’t make shoppers open their wallets. They need a reason to want those cars.

For awhile this year, we had that. With gas prices up around $4 a gallon (still a bargain by world standards), consumers wanted fuel-efficient cars.

But now gas prices are back at, or below, $2 a gallon. If it stays at that level, folks will go back to commuting in half-ton pickups, and we’ll keep sending container boats full of cash to Saudi Arabia.

But if Americans know that gas prices will keep rising, they’ll shop for cars differently, and all the efforts that the Detroit 3 and other carmakers are putting into engineering high-mileage vehicles won’t go to waste.

Congress may fight you on this. The folks on Capitol Hill may say that a recession is a bad time to impose extra fuel costs on a weary nation. And they’re right.

So here’s what you do.

Impose a 10 cent surcharge on the gas price — effective 2010. That’s when a wave of fuel-efficient cars and trucks will begin to appear in the Detroit 3’s showrooms. No need to create demand before the supply is there, right? And we can cross our fingers that by 2010 we’ll be past the worst of this recession.

Then up the ante. Raise the surcharge another 10 cents a year for each of the following four years, so that by 2014 it is 50 cents.

Car shoppers can shake off a one-time price hike. They’ll behave differently if they know that prices are going to keep rising.

Spend it wisely, please

Also, do not promise to use the added gas taxes on roads and highways. That just encourages more driving.

Oh, repair some bridges if you want. But mostly, use it elsewhere. Pay down the federal debt. Buy better armor for our men and women in uniform. Invest in those alternative fuels we need.

Personally, I’d spend it improving the railroad track for medium-distance travel. You know, the trips that used to be a one- to two-hour flight: say Detroit to Chicago, Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, San Antonio to Dallas. Today, with all the hassles of airport security, they take three to five hours — the same as driving. If high-speed rail service could make the trip in less than two hours, people would get on board. The government doesn’t have to run the trains, but it does have to maintain the track, same as it makes sure the skies are safe with air traffic controllers.

But that’s just one idea.

The main point is to give the American public a reason to want the fuel-efficient cars that are coming. They’re going to be great vehicles. It will be a shame if Americans shun them in favor of more Hummer 3s.

Yours truly,

James B. Treece

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