Town meeting member Andrew Fischer has put forward Town Meeting Article #16, which calls for a doubling in the excise tax rate for Sport Utility Vehicles and Light Trucks. While I doubt that the financial burden resulting from this change will cause many people to change what they drive, I do agree with the principle behind the proposal. The fact that we have whole classes of vehicles on the road today which continue to be manufactured and sold that are exempt from Federal Clean Air Fuel Efficiency standards is scandalous. As the dire consequences of our binge on cheap, government subsidized fossil fuel consumption becomes ever nearer and more apparent the folly of this policy lapse looks more and more like the pathetic act of denial that it is.
There is not much we can do on the local level to try to correct this policy gap. We can't ban these vehicles from our roadways, or set our own fuel efficiency standards. Instead, by focusing on increasing the taxation on vehicles that are both heavier and more polluting than passenger cars, we are identifying the additional costs to the environment, infrastructure and human health that these vehicles cause and passing them on to the operator of the vehicle. Indeed the basic problem with our current methods of assigning values to economic productivity and worth is that the market fails to account for long term costs and the general costs often born by society at large. Individuals use up and profit from consuming resources that in fact belong to everyone. Therefore, if these vehicles truly cost more than other vehicles in terms of wear and tear on our infrastructure, air quality degradation, climate change acceleration, etc. then those that consume these additional resources should compensate the owners of those resources, the public.
Of course the real goal of these types of pricing mechanisms is not to collect money, but rather to use the pocket book to motivate a change in behavior. I don't think the change effected by this article will be great enough to cause a mass abandonment of SUV's , but it is nonetheless significant in the message it sends. I have heard SUV owners say that they are being unfairly punished, because they have very good reasons (such as a large family) why they have to drive such a vehicle. Of course the many generations of families who grew up just fine without an SUV might beg to differ on this point. I am sure we will see more and more economic incentives of this kind as we struggle to adapt and change to a more durable and sustainable economy. Congestion pricing for instance, has shown itself to be very effective at reducing peak hour congestion. Again the ultimate goal is not to simply force people to buy their right to pollute but rather to put a truer cost on an activity and ultimately to stimulate innovation and behavioral shifts.
This proposal is timely and targeted and deserves our support.