Guest Post: The Gas Tax is Regressive and Racist. Let’s End It.

Photo by Alexander Grishin via Pixabay.

By Anna Zivarts and Paulo Nunes-Ueno

Maybe we shouldn’t raise the gas tax. In fact, maybe it’s time to get rid of the gas tax altogether.

That might seem like a strange statement coming from advocates like us, who are firmly aligned with the pro-transit, pro-climate justice, pro-investments-in-equity corner of the political landscape. But as we look at the proposed transportation packages in the legislature this session, we are starting to believe that only a truly transformational approach to funding transportation will allow us to address the harm caused by our current system.

What’s wrong with the gas tax? Well, first of all, it’s regressive. You pay the same amount no matter what you can afford, and if you’re wealthy, you’re likely to own a more fuel-efficient vehicle. In fact, these days, you’re likely to own an electric vehicle and pay no gas tax at all. On top of that, as cities become more expensive, you’re more likely to have a long commute if you’re poor.

And the gas tax is receding: Over the last 20 years, gas consumption has not kept pace with population growth. Sooner or
later, this isn’t going to be a reliable revenue stream.

The gas tax is also restricted to funding highways, thanks to the 18th Amendment to the Washington State Constitution, which was enacted eight decades ago in 1944. Every other type of transportation infrastructure, from light rail lines to local bus service, must come from “unrestricted” sources such as car tabs and other vehicle fees—sources of revenue that, thanks to Tim Eyman, have been under constant threat for a generation.

The gas tax restrictions are redlining on wheels, funneling investments away from BIPOC neighborhoods because of the restrictions in where revenue can be spent

Currently, less than 4 percent of our transportation spending goes toward non-highway projects. In fact, in the last three state transportation packages, these non-highway investments have received a decreasing percentage of the total funding.

Which leads us to why the gas tax is racist. You’ve heard of redlining rules that kept banks from giving mortgages in Black or brown neighborhoods. The gas tax restrictions are redlining on wheels, funneling investments away from BIPOC neighborhoods because of the restrictions in where revenue can be spent. Instead of investing in reliable transit service that would benefit BIPOC communities where people are more likely to be transit-reliant, highway expansion funded by the gas tax directly contributes to increased pollution and negative health outcomes in these same communities.

Over the previous year, Front and Centered and Disability Rights Washington have been conducting listening sessions and interviews with our community members across Washington state, resulting in a report and transportation storymap. We’ve heard so many stories from our communities about how our current transportation system is failing us.

For example, Amanda, from Cowlitz County, shared, “I feel like as a senior in high school I should be able to walk to school on a sidewalk. I have to walk on the road with just a guardrail. It’s scary. I don’t want to get hit by a car on my way to school. This is the reality for other people of color.”

We know that what we are suggesting is a departure from the current transportation consensus, but as we’ve seen throughout the last year, sometimes we need to start thinking about how we can fully dismantle systems that perpetuate inequities.

Currently, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) estimates they have less than half of what they need to keep the current highway system in good repair because our elected leaders would rather use gas tax revenue to build new highways and overpasses. With so much unfunded mitigation and basic preservation need, it is inexcusable to expand the system further.

The cost of preserving our highway system must include the costs of mitigating the harm it creates. But even though it’s possible to spend gas tax revenue for this purpose, the legislature has yet to invest the $3.1 billion estimated needed to build fish culverts, so salmon can get past highways. They have not even begun to talk about funding the $5.7 billion that WSDOT estimates is needed to repair the gaps and barriers created in the pedestrian network by the state highways that cut through our communities. For decades, our legislators have underfunded the preservation work needed to keep our highway and bridges from crumbling. And, given the health impacts of dirty air caused by highways and roads, WSDOT should pair road maintenance with air quality monitoring.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, Seattle advocates who opposed the multitude of freeways slated to ring our city engaged in a prolonged battle with highway proponents who wanted to see the gas tax increased to fund the construction of additional highways. For 12 years, highway construction lobbyists held the state education budget hostage until they could win a gas tax increase through the legislature. Understanding this history makes us reconsider the progressive consensus that raising gas taxes is the right
move, and that more funding is always good. More highways, plus more transit; more buses, plus more interchanges.

But what if more isn’t more? What if all the funding that we put into new highways and highway maintenance is actually working against our equity, access, public health, and climate goals? That’s why we think it’s time to turn off the funding faucet to our state highway system.

This is obviously a controversial opinion, as the people who control the faucet are our state legislators, who are more likely than not to have a highway project in their district, a project that they believe will lead to congestion relief and job creation.

On congestion relief, research proves the futility of adding highway capacity because of the very nature of induced demand. But even if you believe that your commute will somehow be improved by more lanes, it’s illogical to lock ourselves into billion-dollar highway widening investments based on data from pre-COVID travel patterns.

And when it comes to jobs, investments in multimodal projects actually create more jobs than highways—jobs that are more likely to go to smaller, women- and minority-owned businesses that may lack the resources to invest in the expensive machinery needed for larger highway projects.

So we need to fix our roads and the impacts they cause. We also need to invest in building the sidewalks, bike lanes, and bus service we’ve neglected for so long. In order to do this, we need new sustainable funding sources that are not regressive, racist, or running out. Alternatives could include a carbon fee, air quality surcharge on the purchase of a new vehicle, luxury vehicle fees, and other sources. These new funding sources are being created with equity baked in. For example, the Washington Strong carbon tax proposal (SB 5373) dedicates 15 percent of revenue from the proposed tax to economic transition assistance for low-income households and workers—and protects revenues from being nabbed for unrelated purposes.

We know that what we are suggesting is a departure from the current transportation consensus, but as we’ve seen throughout the last year, sometimes we need to start thinking about how we can fully dismantle systems that perpetuate inequities. Tinkering around the edges, like throwing a few hundred thousand dollars at pedestrian safety as part of a multi-billion-dollar package, won’t get us any closer to making it safe and accessible to get around our state without a car. We need to stop feeding the highway building machine with funding sources that can only be used to expand the damage it wreaks on
our communities.

Anna Zivarts directs the Disability Mobility Initiative at Disability Rights Washington, which just completed a transportation storymap for Washington State where they interviewed 100+ Washingtonians who can’t and don’t drive about their transportation needs. Anna sits on the Washington State Cooper Jones Active Transportation Council and Autonomous Vehicle Work Group and WSDOT’s Transportation Demand Management Executive Board.

Paulo Nunes-Ueno leads transportation and land use policy for Front and Centered, a coalition of communities of color working toward environmental and climate justice.

16 thoughts on “Guest Post: The Gas Tax is Regressive and Racist. Let’s End It.”

  1. 1)40% of highway use is transporting food, clothing, materials and amazon packages. Mobility for the future is the objectrive of highway spending, not commuters.—-

    2) Go look at the typical buyers of huge Cadillac Escalades, and fast Dodge Challengers, Camaros, Chargers….Big, pricey SUVS aren’t bouoght by who you think and saying expensive cars are racist is ridiculous.

    3) Please stop associating Black Americans with poverty like it’s a given and then using that incorrect assertion to parlay something as being racist. You obviously don’t know what the tern really means when you’re applying it to so much unrelated stuff.

    1. Another ridiculous story trying to tie anything even if unrelated to the serious topic of racism. Last month single family zoning was racist so end that. smh.

  2. As someone growing up lower income my family’s car was a Geo Metro that got 50 mpg. Most lower income people drive Hondas and Toyotas because of their reliability, and they’re more likely to drive subcompact and compact cars than pickup trucks and SUVs. I don’t have any issues with a weight surcharge which would recognize the increased damage and tire dust that SUVs and hybrid/electric vehicles produce (because they drag a thousand pounds of battery with the car) but to say that “you’re likely to own a more fuel-efficient vehicle” is not correct.

  3. Transportation creates 25% of the US’ greenhouse gas emissions and you want to make gas 20-30% CHEAPER?????

    It should go UP, not down. If you want less of something, tax it.

    If you can truly get a brisk Carbon tax as a replacement, then fine. But not until, and the Carbon tax has to be permanent.

  4. The gas tax can be used for the “construction, reconstruction, maintenance, repair, and betterment of public highways, county roads, bridges and city streets”

    Betterments could include repairing pavement in underserved neighborhoods, constructing new sidewalks, widening sidewalks, bus only lanes, transit priority signals, curb ramps, APS, protected bike lanes, bus stops/BRT stations, traffic calming devices, traffic safety features, etc.

    Even if the gas tax can’t be used to specifically purchase busses, it can be used in tons of ways that would have disproportionately POSITIVE impacts for BIPOC communities. As other commenters have pointed out, it is legislators who have chosen to spend the majority on major freeway expansions or replacement of seismically vulnerable freeway structures near high property value areas with nicer looking or lower impact structures (Alaska Way Viaduct, SR 520 Bridge). Legislators could legislate a a better distribution of gas taxes just as easily as they could legislate a funding mechanism.

    Some of the additional funding mechanisms listed above are good ideas, but getting rid of the gas tax entirely is not. Gas tax disincentivises the burning of fuels which contribute to significant health impacts from air quality and climate change that fall disproportionately on low income and BIPOC communities.

    The racism argument is just strange. In another post we might see the same authors argue for more transit or sidewalk funding because BIPOC are far more likely to not own cars. A tax on a substance which our entire economy depends on simply cannot be racist. Nearly everyone uses gasoline in some quantity and the amount you use has only to do with the type of life you live and where you live it, not the color of your skin or your ancestors place of birth. A person living in the transit rich environment of Seattle’s International District will use significantly less gas compared to a farm worker in a rural part of the state. The racial identity of each person has absolutely nothing to do with how much gas they use.

  5. “The gas tax is also restricted to funding highways, thanks to the 18th Amendment to the Washington State Constitution”

    That is simply not true. You are out of date.

    The gas tax is a carbon tax. No, it isn’t progressive — neither is a tax on tobacco, or alcohol. Should be get rid of the tobacco tax, too?

    These are all taxes that discourage bad behavior. We shouldn’t consume gasoline, and for many people, there are alternatives (a bus or a bike). If nothing else we should encourage people to buy cars with high mpg — which are often the cheapest cars around.

    The social cost of consuming gasoline falls heaviest on the poor. You seem to be completely ignoring that.

    1. Fuel sipping small cars have been available at the lowest price point for 40 years. Delivering your food, clothing, and amazon packages on highways isn’t a bad behavior or a sin. 40% of traffic is freight transport.

  6. I love the authors, but this piece is largely a swing and miss. The gas tax is not regressive; it is proportional to a households use of the internal combustion; it may be proportional. The poor households without cars pay little gas tax; only that included in the cost of the goods and services they buy. The issue has been and remains how the Legislature spends gas tax revenue. There are many climate and people friendly projects that gas tax revenue could be used for, but have been neglected: pavement management is lacking in many older cities and in unincorporated King County; pavement management is lacking on the older segments of the highway system, sidewalks could be added, and bridges need better management and often replacement. The gas tax could be used to provide concrete roadways for transit; instead, Seattle has used property tax in recent measures. One flaw in the Legislature’s approach in the past two decades is that they have bonded against the gas tax to fund the highway expansions. The future gas tax is therefore obligated. the gas tax sends climate change useful signal. The market has been responding with better fuel efficiency. Yes, a carbon tax would also be great, but the gas tax will be with us for a long while. The inequities are in how the Legislatures have spent gas tax revenues, not in the gas tax itself. That debate is underway in Olympia today. Yes, highway expansion does not yield congestion relief; that is an expenditure issue, not a revenue issue. If the Legislature wants to control congestion variable tolling is the answer; see SR-520.

  7. this is high quality content, thank you for this. i appreciate the patient explanation of a heterodox perspective; this has changed my thinking (which admittedly was as vague as, “gas tax good?”) and i will be sharing with others.

  8. Takes guts to admit that a policy you advanced for years is racist and wrong!

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