Why do city leaders support a gas tax that subsidizes the suburbs?

Urban drivers are hurt by urban politicians' shortsightedness

The Minneapolis motorist who burns most of her gas driving on city streets may be shocked to find out that she is subsidizing those who do the lion's share of their driving on freeways. For this, she can thank our regressive fuel tax system.

Fuel taxes -- state and federal-- are taxes we pay at the pump on every gallon of gasoline. Funds generated are earmarked solely for highway purposes. This "dedicated" revenue cannot be used for transit, and the portion that gets kicked back to cities for street repair is negligible. In fact, Minnesota's Constitution specifically mandates that fuel tax funds be used for highway purposes.

The most unfortunate aspect for city drivers is that these taxes are indiscriminate. Regardless of whether you burn your gas on a city street or a highway, you are paying for the highway. Since we in the city spend a greater proportion of time on city streets than our suburban counterparts, we are, in effect, subsidizing them.

Fuel tax outlays hurt city neighborhoods in a number of ways. The most obvious of these is resource drain. Current fuel tax rates run at 18 cents per gallon federal and 20 cents per gallon state (combined, that means $7.60 on a 20-gallon gas tank). Thousands of city dwellers are forced to pay for a highway network that little benefits them.

That others choose a highway-dependent lifestyle is fine with me -- until I have to pay for it. It is sad to think that drivers from poor city neighborhoods are subsidizing the commutes of wealthier suburbanites.

Fuel taxes also contribute to suburban sprawl that takes away the geographical advantage of the center city. The cycle is a vicious one. As more fuel taxes are paid, more highways are built. As more highways are built, more drivers pay more fuel taxes [chorus repeats].

If all of this is starting to sound like a conspiracy concocted by General Motors, Big Oil and the rest of the highway lobby -- that's because it is. They invented the concept of dedicated fuel taxes and remain vigorous supporters. Meanwhile, we in the city are losing our political clout and our vitality. Each year, the percentage of suburb-to-downtown commutes decreases, while the percentage of suburb-to-suburb commutes increases. Simply put, we are losing.

Finally, fuel taxes eliminate any possibility of real transit options. Mobility in the Twin Cities would certainly be strained -- perhaps even brought to a standstill -- if fuel taxes were ever eliminated. But that wouldn't be the end of the world. In due time, the marketplace would recognize congestion as an opportunity and real choices -- not Metro Transit -- would emerge. Over a century ago, congestion on the streets of London, New York and Chicago (not to mention St. Cloud and Duluth) prompted investment in dependable, quality transit systems. Competition from highways subsidized by fuel taxes has since forced such operations out of business or into public receivership.

Amazingly, fuel taxes are supported by politicians who, supposedly, represent Minneapolis. State Sen. Jane Ranum, who represents Southwest, has been a frequent supporter. During the 2002 legislative session, Mayor R.T. Rybak led a delegation of mayors to lobby for increased fuel taxes. When I contacted his office, a spokesperson explained that the mayor's intent was to boost transit funding at the same time. But we should be wise enough to know that when the budget ax falls, the 'burbs will continue to get their constitutionally guaranteed fuel funds, while we are left high-and-dry with a Light Rail system that won't be fully built until around 2050.

Interestingly, Ranum also represents quintessentially suburban Bloomington and Richfield. For his part, Rybak has supported the I-35W expansion project. Is the idea that we can compete with the suburbs by becoming one of them?

The highway system has been draining resources, vitality and choice from center cities for more than a half century now. It's high time we considered these taxes with a more critical eye. The alternative is to continue to watch our region sprawl out of control with the privilege of picking up the tab.

Tony Harvath (agharvath@aol.com) lives in the Lake-Nicollet area.