Rising gas prices have politicians scrambling to find some way to mitigate the impact on car drivers’ pocketbooks. But because gas prices get set by multinational corporations, local politicians have pretty limited options for doing this. Most have settled on a per-gallon gas subsidy in the form of a gas tax cap or holiday.
This is a bad idea for several reasons.
First, America’s gas taxes are so low that suspending them wouldn’t make much of a difference to people at the pump. The federal gas tax hasn’t risen since 1993, and is so low that it doesn’t even cover the cost of the Highway Trust Fund anymore. Locally, Onondaga County and the City of Syracuse charge just 4%, so the County Executive’s proposed 16-cent tax cap would only knock 6 cents off the price if gas gets up to $5.50 a gallon. That’s cold comfort for anybody who’s really hurting from the prices they’re paying today.
Second, there’s no way to ensure that the savings will actually get passed onto car drivers. Oil company profits are at a 7-year high right now—gas prices could be lower if all it took was their goodwill. There’s little reason to think that these global corporations are going to just pass up the free money our governments are thinking of handing them. More likely, they’ll just raise prices to gobble up that windfall.
Third, lower gas taxes deliver comparatively small benefits for low-income households who need relief the most. Lowering the price of each gallon of gas gives the biggest handout to the biggest guzzlers, and rich people burn more gas than poor people do. A high-income office worker who drives their SUV from 30 miles Baldwinsville to Downtown and back everyday would get a much larger subsidy than a Northside resident who catches a 5 mile ride with a coworker to Upstate (nevermind that this whole scheme does nothing at all for people who don’t drive, even though rising prices are hitting their household budgets too).
And besides all that, the absolute best way to free people from spiking gas prices is to give them more ways to opt out of buying so much gas in the first place. Gas-powered cars are going to be part of CNY’s transportation system for the foreseeable future, but there’s no reason that so many people should have to burn so much gas just to run their daily errands.
We have the tools to give people better options today. Here are two ways Onondaga County could better spend its unexpectedly high gas tax revenue to help people out immediately:
Expand access to ebikes
Ebikes can replace cars for many trips under 10 miles. Sync bikeshare covers the entire City and is expanding its fleet of ebikes and scooters in preparation for Spring weather. City Hall and Onondaga County should subsidize Sync rides for people switching from car driving and expand bikeshares service area into the towns.
Onondaga County could also help people purchase their own ebikes (or regular bikes) by retooling the Keeping it Local restaurant gift card program to include local bike stores.
City Hall and New York State can help out by installing temporary separated bike lanes along major corridors like Route 5, Route 57, Onondaga Lake Parkway, Route 11, and Milton Avenue to safely accommodate increased bike traffic.
Make Centro Work
Centro is restoring and expanding service as it recovers from the pandemic. Onondaga County and City Hall should identify priority bus lines and pay Centro to make them fare-free. Fares are both an economic and psychological barrier for new riders, and removing them would go a long way to making people feel comfortable saving on gas by riding the bus. Even if some commuters had to board this service at a Park-and-Ride stop like the John Glenn Wegmans, it would save them a lot of gas money by significantly reducing the distance they drive, even if it doesn’t replace the full trip.
Syracuse University already uses this exact strategy to handle parking needs on its campus. If it’s good enough for SU, then it’s good enough for the rest of us too.
City Hall could help make this successful by installing pop-up bus lanes Downtown where car traffic often slows buses and makes transit a less attractive option.
In the longterm, we need more permanent solutions like land use reform—more people should be able to walk or bike to the grocery store, for instance—sidewalks in every community, and more frequent transit service. Those things will take time and we should also use unexpected tax revenue and ARPA funds to get started on them right away. It’s never too soon to create a community where people’s mobility isn’t so dependent on the whims of oil-funded dictators halfway around the globe.
Capping, lowering, or eliminating the gas tax is a bad idea. It won’t help car drivers much (if at all), what help it does provide will mainly go to high-income households, and it will leave us just as vulnerable to the gas price spikes that we are guaranteed to see in the future.