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Monday, January 26, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 18.0° F  Overcast
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Real environmentalists pay per mile to drive their car
A state commission makes a controversial proposal
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I know you. You feel pretty smug about that hybrid, don't you?

You're driving just as much (maybe even more) than you used to, but you're emitting a fraction of the greenhouse gases, saving the planet as you tool down the road. It's like a big sale at Costco. The more you drive the more you save!

But like winning seven Tours de France, the hybrid vehicle is a little too good to be true. Yes, it is a lot better than the fuel-guzzling alternative, but it isn't nearly as good to the environment as taking transit, riding your bike or walking. Even carpooling in a conventional vehicle would be better than driving alone in a hybrid.

The very best thing you can do for the environment is to live in a dense city (most parts of Madison will do) where you will drive less because you have shorter distances to go and because you have easy alternatives.

But for the purposes of today's column, here's another problem with hybrids: They cheat the system. Whether your vehicle is getting 15 miles to the gallon or 60, it's putting the same wear and tear on the roads you drive. Yet, our system for paying to maintain roads is based on a tax you pay at the pump. If you use less gas you pay less tax and contribute less for the maintenance of the roads you still use.

The federal and state gas taxes have been producing flat or declining revenues for years because our vehicle fleet is becoming rapidly more efficient. The recession and demographics are also a factor in less driving. Aging baby boomers and young millennials are driving less because they don't want to drive or because driving doesn't have the same cachet that it used to. The number of 17-year-olds who choose to delay getting a license has tripled since the 1970s. When I was 17 being without a license was tantamount to owning a John Denver album. (Don't press me too hard on that one.)

In addition to state highways, the gas tax helps pay for bus systems like Madison Metro, bike and pedestrian programs and the rebuilding of local streets (though I would say not enough in each case). If the tax gets squeezed, guess what will get squeezed out? Hint: It won't be state highways.

If we don't find another way to raise revenues for all kinds of mobility, what will happen is that lawmakers will take the relatively easy way out. They'll take more money from the general fund, hitting other things that we care about like the university, public education, human service programs and more.

So state government did what any self-respecting bunch of pols with an intractable problem would do: They appointed a commission. I was appointed to it by state Sen. Mark Miller.

The Transportation Finance and Policy Commission made its recommendations this week after 18 months of work. There's lots of good stuff in there:

  • A 21% increase in funding for operating local transit systems.
  • A new state program to help pay for new buses.
  • A 40% increase in bike and pedestrian funding.
  • A requirement to estimate ongoing operating and basic maintenance costs of highway projects.
  • An explicit recognition that the most important demographic trend is aging baby boomers and their increased reliance on public transit.
  • Support for Regional Transportation Authorities like the one we use to have in Dane County before the Republicans eliminated it in 2011.
  • A statewide mobility manager system to help transit-dependent populations get around.

But the most far-reaching and controversial recommendation is to charge a per-mile fee for driving. It would start out low at only a little more than a penny per mile. But what's revolutionary about it is that for the first time drivers would be conscious of what they are spending per mile. As such, the fee is the most important pro-environmental recommendation in the entire report.

The commission chose a low-tech approach. There would be no monitor in your car. You would simply take an odometer reading when your annual vehicle registration came due and do some simple multiplication. Yes, you could cheat, but no more than you can on your income taxes, and there are ways of addressing that.

The report isn't without its flaws. My environmentalist friends will say it recommends too much road building, and it surely does. But what we lack in politics today is the spirit of compromise. I was willing to live with more road building than I would like to get all of the other progress.

The report now goes to the governor and the Legislature, where you might think that it will be dead on arrival. But with maybe a third of the Republican majority in each house tea party radicals who will vote for no tax increases at all, it is likely that the GOP will need Democratic votes to get anything passed. So there's a chance here for moderate Republicans, who recognize the need for tax increases to fund infrastructure as an economic development strategy, to partner with minority Democrats, who agree on economic development but also see the environmental pluses in the whole plan.

That means that all of this has some fighting chance. Who knows, a hybrid version might pass.

Dave Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison. He blogs as Citizen Dave.

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