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High-speed rail may fuel a hike in gas tax

(The following article by Evan Lehmann was posted on the North Adams, Mass., Transcript website on October 24.)

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. John Olver, D-Amherst, hopes high-speed rail development will take a front seat in Congress if Democrats take control of the House in November.

But laying tracks and developing technology is an expensive proposition — and Olver said motorists might have to pay more taxes at the gas pump to fund locomotive enhancements and other conservation initiatives.

"High-speed rail is very expensive," Olver said in an interview Monday. "Our highway trust fund is getting pretty short of money. If we do not do something about replenishing that trust fund, then you don't have the money to do it."

The federal gasoline tax — at 18.4 cents a gallon — raised $23.7 billion in 2005, according to the Tax Foundation, fueling the highway trust fund's ability to pay for road improvements and other transportation programs.

But that's not enough, Olver said, to pay for a growing list of national transportation programs, including proposals to study and then create two high-speed rail corridors that have languished in the Northeast.

He did not endorse hiking the gas tax but said it's one possible solution to a dwindling transportation budget.

One designated corridor between Boston and Montreal, Canada, with a stop in Lowell, has been studied, but it reached an impasse when New Hampshire refused to contribute state money for research.

Another proposed corridor would connect Boston with Portland, Maine, boasting trains that would roar along rails — or hover in the air — and reach speeds of up to 150 mph.

"We have to have money to do things," said Olver, who would likely become chairman of the Appropriation Committee's panel on transportation if Democrats wrest control from the GOP on Nov. 7.

But raising the gas tax could be wildly unpopular in an election year after pump prices exploded upward following Hurricane Katrina and continued unrest in the Middle East.

Olver, who raised the issue of an increased gas levy, has reason to be cautious of endorsing a tax hike right before midterm elections. He faces Billy Szych, an independent, on Election Day, and Republican candidates nationwide are warning voters that Democrats would raise taxes.

"More taxes are not what the American people — and people in this district — are looking for," Szych said Monday. "We need just the opposite. We need less taxes."

Gas tax

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., has expressed support for a gas tax of 50 cents a gallon more than 12 years ago. It was revisited before the 2004 presidential election, and the Bush-Cheney campaign launched a television ad calling the idea "wacky."

The Republican National Committee, meanwhile, has put a "gas tax calculator" on its Web site, calculating the pocketbook damage for motorists.

Currently, motorists pay 18.4 cents in federal taxes for every gallon of gas. Massachusetts has its own tax — 21 cents — making the average overall tariff about 42 cents for each gallon of gas in the Bay State. Cities, towns and counties add their own small taxes as well.

In California and New York, taxes crest at about 60 cents a gallon, and a handful of other states push the levies above 50 cents.

Massachusetts could join those high-tax states if it adopts a recommendation to raise the state gas tax by 9 cents a gallon, as proposed by the state Transportation Finance Commission.

"With declining federal revenues and the cost of the Central Artery, the state must find additional revenue sources to maintain and expand its highways and mass transit," Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation and a member of the commission, told The Associated Press earlier this month. Widmer supports a gas-tax increase.

Raising the federal gas tax for anything other than highway improvements, including high-speed rail, would be unjustified, said Jonathan Williams, economist with the Tax Foundation. a nonpartisan group that supports spending decreases.

"There's really no justification for a higher gasoline tax," Williams said Monday.

Instead Congress should cut the 6,000 earmarks included in the 2005 transportation law, he said, noting special-interest projects such as a $6 million graffiti-reduction program for New York City.

U.S. Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Lowell, agreed, saying in a statement, "Raising the federal gasoline tax would just put one more burden on Americans who are still paying too much for gas, on top of soaring home energy costs."

He said bills he introduced this year that would give tax credits for motorists who convert their vehicles to alternative-fueled cars are "sensible solutions" to increasing energy conservation without raising the gas tax.

Raising the gas tax is supported by some environmental groups, which believe higher gas prices could result in reduced consumption and spur motorists to seek alternatively fueled cars.

A higher tax could also enhance national security, some proponents say. They assert that a national policy decision to raise the gas tax would send a message to oil-producing nations in the Middle East:

America is serious about reducing its dependency on foreign oil, which is often produced by unfriendly regimes that prosper under the trade. At 21 cents, the Massachusetts gas tax is less than state levies on wine (55 cents a gallon) and liquor ($4.05 a gallon).

There is one liquid that carries a lower tariff: A gallon of beer is taxed 11 cents.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

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