The commute conundrum and the California fuel tax increase

Getting knowledge workers off congested freeways by substituting the use of information and communications technology (ICT) for commuting was first proposed by visionary Jack Nilles in the early 1970s. Decades later, the idea only has grown only better. Commuting sucked then and sucks even more today with more commuters. A half century of experience shows adding more lanes to highways to make commute traffic flow more easily doesn’t help in the long run since the promise of smoother commutes makes commuting more palatable. Until yet more cars fill those new lanes and it no longer is.

In California – home to some of the longest and worst commutes in the nation and where Nilles came up with his brilliant idea – housing and transportation economics and tax policy are complicating the picture. At the threshold of the third decade of the 21st century, ICT and the development of the Internet since Nilles’s eureka moment has effectively obsoleted daily commuting for knowledge workers. But it hasn’t for those who don’t work in knowledge industries such as retail, food service, personal services, construction, manufacturing, transportation, warehousing and agriculture. They are paid only if they physically show up at their workplaces. These workers typically earn less than knowledge workers and are more likely to drive alone to work than use public transit or other forms of transportation. ICT can certainly lessen their personal commuting burden by getting knowledge workers off the highways during commute hours. Fewer commuting knowledge workers means fewer cars and easier and shorter commute trips. But fewer knowledge workers commuting translates to less fuel tax revenue, shifting the tax burden to those who must still commute to a distant workplace. Mitch Turck elaborates in a Forbes column:

Taking a significant chunk of commuters off the road and into their home offices would create a tipping point in remaining drivers’ financial obligations — a regressive and unsustainable “commuter penalty” that would undoubtedly have to be reassessed as a road maintenance tax for all residents. Considering the U.S. is currently using roads more than ever, but hasn’t increased the gas tax in a quarter-century, one can only wish the best of luck to any politician tasked with such an overhaul.

It is this cohort from which proponents of a California ballot measure this November proposing to repeal a recently imposed fuel tax and vehicle registration fee increase to pay for road maintenance and mass transit hope to draw support according to the San Francisco Chronicle:

Polling by Prop. 6 consultants shows that the measure appeals to voters in suburbs and rural areas, especially the Inland Empire, where some residents drive upward of 100 miles a day to get to their jobs. “These are places where people have long drives, and they’re the ones who will be most angry about these taxes,” said campaign consultant David Gilliard.

“This tax affects everybody, but it hits the working poor the hardest,” talk show host Carl DeMaio, chairman of the repeal campaign, told the newspaper:

“We’re going to win,” he told The Chronicle, insisting that his side has the more compelling argument. Supporters of the repeal say the 12 cents-per-gallon gas excise tax and increased vehicle registration fees passed last year by the Legislature and signed by Brown create hardships for working-class families.

Those working-class families have been pushed to the edges of high cost metro areas like the San Francisco Bay Area by housing market economics that make it more affordable there than in the centers and inner suburbs where they work. Those same economics have driven more highly paid knowledge workers farther from their commute-in offices in search of housing that comports with their incomes. Among them, those forced to commute with journeys approaching and exceeding one hour are likely to support the repeal effort, since they are most likely to support anything that will reduce their significant personal commute burden in the short term over any future road improvements.

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