Set aside the virtuous reasons for a gas tax hike. We need a gas tax hike because we can’t afford to build and maintain our transportation infrastructure. If cars and trucks need more and better roads and bridges, then it should fall more directly on car and truck drivers to pay for them. It’s little wonder that the state has no money for roads, bridges, and transit. The price of a gallon of gas has nearly tripled since 1991 (compared to the recent, relatively low prices), and the state’s take has stayed the same: $0.21. If you were to simply apply the same effective rate as in 1991, the tax would be nearly $0.75. Imagine the shiny bridges and pothole-free roads the state could afford with more than three times the gas tax revenue. I would also suggest that a portionof any higher gas tax be distributed to municipalities for snow-clearing so that drivers bear that burden more directly, too.
If the state were to raise the gas tax, why bother raising tolls on the Pike or applying new tolls on 93? Two reasons. One, because those roads are expensive to maintain and there’s a huge debt service on the Big Dig that’s fair to allocate to Boston-area Pike and 93 traffic. Second, because there is congestion on both. The second reason demands not a simple toll hike, but a smart one: a peak-pricing scheme that will alleviate congestion at times of highest demand.
During heaviest use, there are two types of drivers in a Pike backup: those who are willing to put up with the traffic, but less willing to put up with a higher toll and those who would be willing to pay a higher — even substantially higher — toll if it would lead to a shorter trip time. It’s a lousy allocation of demand. The second group is really inconvenienced by the first group, but there’s no mechanism to keep the first group off the highway during peak times.
Raise the toll during the peak time and and the first group would avoid a toll hike by using the pike off-peak. (Some would use alternative routes, which is why a toll hike should also include mitigation to cities and towns likely to get cut-through traffic.) The second group would get the benefit of a premium toll. During rush hour, the Pike would be used by the people who value it most.
The benefit would be probably be even more dramatic on 93, where there is much heavier commercial traffic. It might be worth a lot more than the peak-pricing premium for a business owner to get his or her truck through Boston without the typical delay. That premium would help subsidize travel for those who are willing to go at a different time.
Higher gas tax? Absolutely. But, raise the tolls, too. Only not all the time.