The Times Record of Brunswick (Maine), Jan. 13, 2015
Filling a gas tank over the weekend cost just $26. Prices like that cause one to blink, and blink again. Yep, the price of gas was very close to $2 per gallon, something that hasn't seen since 2009. Not that long ago, it cost $50 to fill the same tank.
Who doesn't like lower gas prices? And yet, it makes one wonder if we shouldn't be foregoing some of the windfall — not all, but some — and socking some gas tax money away to deal with critical infrastructure issues while the price war lasts.
Because let's be honest, the Saudis and the Kuwaitis aren't upping their production, and thus cutting their own income, for our benefit. They're doing it to bring the Russian bear to its knees. They may be doing it to harm Iran's economy. And they're likely doing it to encourage us to leave tar sands in the ground and cut back on fracking.
While many have no love for tar sands or fracking, which is damaging to clean water everywhere it's been tried, it is definitely having an effect on the employment picture in fracking communities and in Canada. Frackers are laying workers off; while tar sands oil is still being refined, there are significant questions about whether the Keystone XL Pipeline, which runs over the Ogallala Aquifer, is ever going to make it off the drawing board. And if the price keeps dropping, neither the frackers nor the tar sands pits will bother, because the cost of producing oil and gas that way is much more expensive than what they can earn back on their product with prices this low.
Plans for new drilling are already on hold in much of the country.
It's likely that the Saudis and Kuwaitis will keep this up for a while. Cornering a market takes time. But what if, in the interim, we took an additional 10 cents from our unexpected windfall and put it toward a temporary gas tax, with the sole purpose of fixing roads and bridges, and investing in public transit infrastructure?
Mainers and those from away bought more than a billion gallons of gasoline last year alone. It'll likely be more this year, because as prices fall, people travel again. But even at a billion gallons, a temporary extra gasoline tax of 10 cents would give us $100 million per year to fix roads, bridges, railroad tracks, commuter rail stations, buy a few buses and more.
This year's Maine Department of Transportation list of work priorities for the 2015-2017 period includes $388 million for bridge capital and preservation, highway construction or rehabilitation, pavement preservation, and light capital paving annually. There is an annual shortfall of about $119 million, or about 31 percent. The shortfall could be almost eliminated with the temporary gas tax, and at a dollar less per gallon, we'd still have an extra 90 cents in our pockets.
A temporary gas tax seems like common sense to us. It's a small price to pay for the benefit of driving on smooth roads and safe bridges and keeping our own cars in good condition, and a good percentage of the cost would be borne by visitors, who probably won't miss the dime per gallon, either.