The fact that taxes add roughly 35 cents per gallon more in New York state than in neighboring New Jersey, that a round trip across the George Washington Bridge costs $13.00, and that parking on the streets of Manhattan is priced up to $5.00 an hour should remind us not simply that things are expensive these days, but that flat taxes and government fees are, per se, unfair to the less affluent.
As a nation, we support progressive income taxes yet fail to apply the same fairness to a growing list of other taxes and fees. Where I live, in Monterey, Calif., there is now a mandatory 25-cent charge to obtain a paper bag in retail establishments. Such government-imposed fees — in this case for the laudable purpose of protecting the environment — mean little to the wealthy but weigh heavily on the poor.
The drive into Manhattan, if done twice a week for a two-hour visit by someone earning $26,000 a year, would amount to a 10% tax relative to his entire income. For someone making $250,000 annually, the same trips result in an effective tax of one-tenth of one percent.
In Virginia, they've just opened new express lanes on I-495. But these aren't typical HOV lanes, where carpooling is the only thing rewarded; these lanes are open to any motorist who wishes to zip along faster by paying a toll. It's a shameful way to make public highways more accessible to the wealthy.
In Oregon, they're testing a new toll program using GPS in which motorists pay according to how many miles they drive — about 1.8 cents per mile. This distorted view of "fairness," just like the notions of a national sales tax or flat income tax favored by conservatives, is regressive.
Not all government fees can be easily converted to a progressive system, but E-ZPass technology used throughout the Northeast might hold the key. Toll rates, and even gas taxes and parking fees, could vary based on the value of the car in which a transponder is installed.
Several states in the E-ZPass system already offer discounts to seniors and owners of low-emission vehicles. Some locales are also experimenting with E-ZPass for use in gas stations and parking lots. Why not base all related taxes on the ability of a motorist to pay?
Charging several dollars per hour to park on a public street may seem like a good way to reduce congestion and increase revenue, and it is — if you’re willing to effectively make such parking available to only those who can afford it. Allowing affluent motorists to avoid traffic delays by paying a fee to use express lanes may strike some as fair, but it discriminates against the poor.
We are increasingly a nation of haves and have-nots, with a shrinking middle class. It’s regrettable that at every turn in the road, so to speak, we impose fees that serve to widen the gap.
(c) Peter Funt. This column was originally distributed by the Cagle Syndicate.