AS GAS PRICES head for the sky, gasoline tax receipts -- money for transportation improvements -- are going down. The Post's Steven Ginsberg reported Saturday that area governments are feeling a pinch as some drivers curb their sport-utility vehicle travels and other motoring to reduce their gas consumption. Highway projects are largely paid for by a fixed tax on each gallon -- not a percentage, which would fluctuate with gas prices -- and those gallons aren't flowing that fast these days. The revenue losses so far are nowhere near calamitous, but politically jittery lawmakers who wouldn't raise the tax in better times won't dare do so now.
In June and July, total gas tax receipts in Virginia dropped by nearly $1 million compared with the same months a year earlier. In fiscal 2005, the state took in $890.6 million. In Maryland, which collected $752.7 million in fiscal 2005, the June yield was $1 million less than projected. In the District, revenue was nearly $1 million less than last year, but it had begun dropping long before now. The city collected $26.6 million in fiscal 2004, compared with $31.8 million in fiscal 2000.
Still, the gasoline tax remains a logical user fee that ought to be increased, even if now is not the ideal moment. One positive effect: The higher costs for fuel should spur new ideas for gasoline conservation, including changes in driving patterns and in vehicles driven.
As it is, the gas tax is no longer sufficient to finance transportation programs. Many of the same spineless lawmakers who have opposed increases in gas taxes over the years have been blowing off transportation projects for lack of funding, adding to the backlog of projects. To make matters worse, governors have borrowed money from what transportation funds they did have to cover other needs. Virginia's last gas tax increase, to 17.5 cents per gallon, was in 1987; the District, at 20 cents a gallon, and Maryland, at 23.5 cents, haven't raised their rates since 1992.
Tolls, public-private partnerships, more convenient transit, telecommuting and HOV incentives should all be part of the solution to the region's transportation problems, but so should taxes. Until officials face that cold fact and stand up for money to deliver relief from gas-burning, time-wasting traffic, the misery will only worsen.