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Bicycle tax

01/24/03 12:00AM By Allen Gilbert
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(Host) Commentator Allen Gilbert says bicyclists deserve tax cuts, not tax hikes.

(Gilbert) There's always a sense of "starting over" when the Legislature convenes. New political players are on the scene, personal relationships shift, a new sense of energy is in the air.

But there can be problems. Individual politicians with years of expertise on issues are gone, having lost re-election or moved on to other work. The honeymoon period of good feeling can quickly give way to conflict. New legislators with little public policy experience can stumble into these conflicts. They sometimes develop proposals that just don't make a lot of sense on closer scrutiny.

One such proposal is the plan by a freshman legislator to tax bicyclists $15 per year. The legislator thinks that if bikes want to share the road, they should be paying for the use of the road, as cars and trucks do. At first blush, this reasoning may make sense. But seen in a broader context, this bill is exactly what we don't need as we struggle with keeping our air clean, cutting energy costs, maintaining roads, and keeping ourselves fit.

Bikes are non-polluting, and this feature alone should give them special status. A recent Atlantic Monthly quoted a study that showed that Vermont is the least significant polluter among the 50 states. But even with this distinction, Vermont's responsible for emitting more greenhouse gases than 33 developing countries combined.

The enemy is us. We're driving our cars and SUVs more and more - collectively, over 6 billion miles per year. But we're not charged the full cost of our heavy automobile usage. Gasoline in the U.S. is ridiculously cheap - it sometimes costs less than bottled water. Yet there's a cost to keeping oil fields open in, say, Kuwait. That cost is never charged to us as drivers - it shows up in our country's military budget. And cars are major polluters, yet the cost of environmental protection programs shows up in federal and state budgets - not when we turn the key. Finally, the cost of our sedentary lifestyle, which includes sitting behind the wheel of a car, shows up in increased health care costs.

Bikes can help us lessen or even avoid many of these costs. Plus, bikes have zero impact on roads, while trucks and other heavy vehicles pound pavements to potholes.

Perhaps drivers have to slow down and pay a bit more attention as they share the road with bicyclists. But that doesn't seem a bad thing to me.

I'm guessing that behind this bill is the recent tiff over the cost of a bike path bridge in Chittenden County. Some legislators think that bike paths are frivolous and too expensive. They want money spent on cars and trucks, not bikes. This bill may be a shot across the bow to tell bicycle advocates that they could be pedaling uphill with this Legislature.

From a public policy perspective, we shouldn't be taxing bikes. We should be providing incentives for more people to ride bikes. How about a $15 tax credit if you ride a bike to work?

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert of Worcester is a writer and parent who is active in education issues.

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