By Frances Lamberts
Governor Haslam will be a Marcus Aurelius of our time if the Legislature consents to his plan for a hike in the gasoline tax. His proposed 7-cent increase, along with some additional fees, would secure funding to take care of a large backlog – almost 1,000 projects – in repair of roads, bridges and other infrastructure. Like other taxes, the gas tax would also be indexed to the Consumer Price Index, thus to avoid in the future very large shortfalls for needed work, such as the state now faces.
Marcus Aurelius was Roman emperor in the second century AD, about two hundred years after Rome had conquered the then Celtic lands between (and beyond) the Rhine and Mosel rivers in Germany. Using numerous quarries and mines in that region, the Roman legionaries had built roads considered marvels of logistics and engineering. Remnants survive today, including a still-used bridge across the Mosel in Trier, part of a UNESCO World Heritage site.
A display in a history museum I visited there two years ago showed parts from the Augusta Treverorum, the early chronicle of the city. One display had this message (in German): “The great prince and general, Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, has restored the bridges and roads which had collapsed or were seriously degraded, due to their age.”
Our governor isn’t alone in having to deal with gasoline taxing issues. Germany’s Commerce Department Secretary, Mr. Gabriel, reportedly has also proposed a gas tax, indexed to market prices. The indexing would be different, though, as the tax would come into place automatically when gas prices fall. That approach to shoring up infrastructure funding might be easier on consumers than Haslam’s plan, but neither there nor here the legislative bodies seem to be giving much support to the initiatives.
It is well known that, as a commodity’s price goes up, people use less of it. Cheap gas brings temporary benefit for many households but is a curse rather than a blessing in the longer term. The environment and human health suffer and efforts to ward off worse damage from climate change decline. Public transport networks typically receive less investment, for example, when gas prices are low, as do more fuel efficient cars and alternative, electric vehicles.
The Brookings Institution recommends a flexible gas-taxing system, the tax being raised when oil prices fall and lowered, though less than before the increase, when they rise. The researchers warn that, without some such tax, avoidance of truly dangerous global temperature rise will be next to impossible to achieve.
The Tennesseean reported Haslam’s plan to also include infrastructure “to transport wind energy from Oklahoma to Memphis.” This would help our state, along with the Tennessee Valley Authority, to innovate and transform old, worn out and environmentally destructive energy technologies. We would move faster toward a competitive stance with other regions, and nations, on electricity from renewable sources. These promise a bright, sustainable and affordable energy future that won’t invite climate catastrophe ahead.
I hope Mr. Haslam will come to be remembered as the Marcus Aurelius of Tennessee.