FOR every gallon of gasoline they buy, New Yorkers pay nearly 51 cents in state fuel taxes. The amount is higher than in any other state. At the opposite end of the scale, Oklahomans pay 17 cents. Only three states have lower gas taxes.
Whether the tax is high or low, transportation officials in every state are grappling with a system that assesses gas taxes on the basis of quantity (gallons purchased) rather than commodity price (cost per gallon). Thus, gas tax collections rise and fall based on consumption rather than fuel prices. Buy a Coke at a store selling gas and you'll pay a sales tax, a percentage of the current Coke price. Buy gasoline at that store and you'll pay the same tax per gallon that you did 20 years ago.
But the cost of building and repairing roads hasn't been static in those 20 years. The fuel tax is a vital source of income for highway construction and repairs. Eight states raised fuel taxes in 2013. The last time Oklahomans were asked to approve a fuel tax increase, 87 percent rejected the proposal. It was the most lopsided defeat of a state question in Oklahoma history.
Twenty years ago was the last time the federal government raised its gas tax. So the current 18.4-cent rate has been in effect since Bill Clinton's first year in office. What's happened since then further compounds the problem of financing roadwork. Drivers of cars with higher gas mileage buy less gas and thus pay less gas taxes. Compressed natural gas is taxed at a much lower rate than gasoline. Hybrids and electric cars consume less gas or none at all.
Yet no matter how they're powered, all vehicles contribute to highway wear and tear.
A proffered solution to the problem, one that Oklahomans won't like any better than they did the gas tax hike, is to charge motorists according to miles driven rather than the fuel they buy. It's called the vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax. VMT is a way to offset declines in fuel tax collections and get around gas tax increases.