Editorial: ‘Miles traveled’ tax underscores hypocrisy in transit

Eastbound traffic on Highway 152 is coming from Gilroy.

The local transit agency’s long-term budget plan is a fantasy wish list, so talk of creating a so-called “vehicle miles traveled tax” to fund its massive, self-created shortfall should be viewed from the same fictional perspective.

Council of San Benito County Governments officials broached the idea for a vehicle miles traveled tax, along with a sales tax, as potential revenue sources to fill the $317 million shortfall listed in the agency’s 25-year Regional Transportation Plan, a document required by the state.

Such talk of using desperation tactics is nothing new in the transportation industry, which has faced skyrocketing costs and curtailed revenue that have been attributed to less driving and more fuel-efficient vehicles on the roads. COG’s talk of the VMT tax or a sales tax to fill the deficit came, meanwhile, on the heels of hastily postponed discussions over a tolling option for the Highway 152 project – a largely unpopular idea, particularly among local governments over the hill, to fund the new road.  

In other words, transit leaders appear to be aimlessly throwing darts with hopes that one sticks and the public buys into one of these alternative tax ideas – instead of finding new efficiencies and more economical ways of doing business, instead of living within their already wealthy enough means and facing the fiscal reality in which we all live, instead of reforming the business model so that users pay more of their share and taxpayers subsidize less of it.

Don’t be fooled: COG’s intent with the vehicle miles traveled tax does not revolve around equitability for the taxpayers who are using the roads and funding transportation projects, as some might suggest in an attempt to add a sense of righteousness to the consideration. Transportation leaders have blamed declining gas tax revenues and those fuel-efficient cars for much of the drop in revenue, and the need for finding new tax sources. So, essentially, in the midst of this revolution to move consumers toward fuel efficiency and environmental friendliness, transportation agencies are turning around and penalizing hybrid car owners because they’re supposedly not paying enough fuel taxes to pay for road improvements.

Are we trying to save the earth or build as many roads as possible? Which is it, transportation bureaucrats? You can’t have it both ways.

COG’s own use of the $317 million shortfall figure to sound the alarm bell is proof enough that this is all about money. This is all about creating justification – scaring taxpayers with eye-popping, crisis-level figures – to increase the general tax base for public transit and roads. This is about feeding a well-oiled machine.

Instead of trying to keep up with ever-escalating costs, COG and other transit agencies should target their inefficiencies and correct them before thinking of coming back to taxpayers and asking – more like manipulating them – for more money.

Continuing to increase taxes, which has become quite popular in this county, is not a productive solution for the economy and will just end up decreasing the amount of money locals have to spend in a stagnant private sector.

Either we are digging ourselves a hole as a community, or we are digging ourselves out of one. Residents, and elected leaders, have to make that choice.

This predictable taxing trend in recent times points to a severe lack of creativity and an unwillingness to make difficult decisions. Every time there is a shortage of money around here, our elected leaders get on their knees and cry for more in the form of new or increased taxes.  Or they at least pay an expensive consultant to figure out whether they can suck any more money out of residents’ wallets – and then they send us the bill for the consultant fee.

While Hollister in November passed its 1 percent sales tax, Measure E, San Benito County supervisors last week broached their own sales tax for 2014. Clearly, supervisors are playing “Follow the Leader” with the sales tax, and COG is probably next in line. Once COG likely enters the sales tax fray – the more obvious taxing solution outside of the less familiar VMT levy – why not have every other public entity in San Benito County join in the fun and get their own sales tax approved? Let the dominoes fall. After all, most or all government operations are struggling financially and could use the boost, right? They, too, could find justification for squeezing more money from the public, right?

They could. So could every business and every nonprofit. So could every resident.  The difference is, that option doesn’t exist for businesses, nonprofits and residents. Someone, after all, has to pay the bills.

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