Gas taxes and registration fees can help bring the private cost of driving closer to the social cost
It's been a banner year for transportation policy in Ohio.
Gov. Mike DeWine's deal with the legislature this spring to raise Ohio's gasoline tax will pour millions of new dollars into local infrastructure coffers.
A less high-profile change in the recent transportation budget was recently acted on when Columbus City Council increased the vehicle registration fee by $5, bringing the total annual vehicle registration fee in Columbus to $65.
Cars exact costs on society in the form of wear and tear on roads, congestion, crashes and emissions. The more cars on the road, the more taxpayers pay to maintain them, the more commuters pay in hours lost to traffic, the more riders pay as victims to crashes and the more residents pay with asthma and mortality associated with emissions.
Columbus' growth rate will exacerbate these problems. Last week, Columbus officially passed San Francisco in central city population size. Over the past few years, Franklin County has become the most-populated county in the state, and the Columbus metropolitan area passed the Cleveland metropolitan area in size.
More people means more cars, which means more infrastructure damage, congestion, crashes and emissions.
Fees are an efficient way to internalize these costs, encouraging people to drive less and raising funds for infrastructure maintenance, poverty alleviation and economic development investments. While a per-mile fee would better capture these costs, a vehicle registration fee is a tool city leaders actually have at their disposal to control car costs.
A limitation of local tools like a municipal registration fee is its local nature. While a small increase in the cost of owning a car in the city will make changes on the margins in Columbus car ownership patterns, it does nothing for commuters living in suburbs and townships not subject to the fee.
That being said, Columbus is helped here by its relatively large geographic footprint and its strong enforcement mechanisms. We all know people who have received failure to register citations: The city takes it seriously.
In the future, the city could benefit from partnerships with the county and suburban communities if it wants to create an efficient vehicle registration fee. The Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission could be a facilitator for this collaboration, as a table of local governments in the Central Ohio region.
Ultimately, better abatement of the societal costs of driving will hinge on future collaboration with the state. The most recent transportation bill shows what a state listening to and collaborating with local government can lead to. Gas taxes and registration fees will bring the private cost of driving closer to the social cost.
Who knows, maybe this collaboration will open the door for even more innovative solutions like vehicle miles traveled fees and congestion pricing.
A wonk can dream, right?
Rob Moore is the principal for Scioto Analysis, a Columbus-based policy analysis firm.