Back in 1997, Utahans paid $1.14 for a gallon of gasoline, of which 24.9 cents went to state and local taxes. Today, we pay $3.14 per gallon, and the tax is the same: 24.9 cents.
Property, sales and income taxes are levied as a percentage that collects more revenue as prices go up, but not fuel. It’s no wonder our roads and bridges are falling apart and our air is so crummy.
The communities along the Wasatch Front have a serious air pollution problem. The facts are shocking: Utah routinely has the most polluted air in the country; the state records the highest rate of both autism and childhood asthma in the nation, both of which have been directly linked to air pollution; yearly, 2000 people die in Utah due to causes related to pollution; and on a red air day, breathing here inflicts lung damage equivalent to chain smoking. It’s estimated that the health care costs of filthy air in Utah run into the billions.
Word of our bad air is out. We’ve been embarrassed and pitied in the national news. Visitors are reconsidering ski holidays. Businesses are re-evaluating their location plans. And pregnant mothers are considering childbirth somewhere else. At the universities, we worry that out-of-state students may turn down scholarships and that faculty recruits may take other jobs.
What if the next national news story was that Utahns were doing everything possible to clean up their air?
There are lots of useful proposals: invest more in mass transit; increase mixed use and high density development so folks don’t have to travel so far; clean up or close dirty industries; strengthen vehicle emission standards; reward use of fuel efficient, hybrid, and electric vehicles; give bicycle and pedestrian commuters a tax break; and phase out fireplaces and wood stoves.
But the fastest way to make a big difference is to raise the cost of gasoline. When gas costs more, people make different choices. They take mass transit, buy smaller cars, combine trips, carpool, stop idling, move closer to work and, very happily, they produce far less air pollution!
There are loads of other benefits too: we’ll protect our lands from destructive fossil fuel mining, wean ourselves from reliance on foreign petro-dictatorships and spare the atmosphere a bunch of climate-changing CO2.
The resistance to pricier gas will be great. Nobody likes to pay more. But at some point, if we care about quality of life, we must make some difficult and expensive decisions. These upfront costs will be saved in a more efficient and healthier future. Even the worry that once demands for gas drops, tax revenue will too, is unwarranted; by then, we’ll have invested in the roads, transit and mitigation and won’t need as much revenue.
Utah’s gas tax is nearly 7 cents per gallon below the national average. Let’s start by raising it to the average, and investing the revenue in road maintenance, mass transit and pollution control. Then let’s raise it again, and get serious about improving the quality of life for everyone along the Wasatch Front.
If you don’t think an extra $1.05 on a typical tank full of gas is worth your kid’s health, then move somewhere else.
This will take courage from the Utah Legislature. It’s time for our representatives to return contributions from serial polluters, and meet their far larger obligation to protect the health of their constituencies.
If tax-scared representatives need cover, this really isn’t a tax hike; it’s simply a means to catch up the lost value of a tax.
And conservatives should applaud the idea that those who use a public resource the most should also be paying for it.
There will be heaps of rhetoric for sure. In this legislative session though, let’s make sure that there is less hot air, and a lot more clean air.
Eric C. Ewert is an associate professor of geography at Weber State University.
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