Last spring, several of my friends and I drove to Florida for vacation. I had no idea the drive would turn out to be a highly calculated pilgrimage from gas station to gas station, plotting every stop with the precision of a paranoid mapmaker. Oh how naïve I was. Imagine my shock when it was determined that no fuel should be bought until we crossed the border into (fuel-wise) cheaper South Carolina! Here I was, a proud North Carolinian skipping over my own state simply to save a buck on gas.
Sadly, my story is not an isolated one. Summer is in full swing, and as vacationers contemplate traveling there will be increased temptation to pass over North Carolina in favor of cheaper locales, denying the state of much needed revenue. Worse still, local businesses relying on tourists and travelers will be hurt in the process.
When travelers pay more to fill up, they will likely cut back elsewhere. A trip to the lake may replace a trip to the beach. Persons who do make it to the beach may decide not to drive the extra 30 miles to a local lighthouse. A trip to the lighthouse may result in taking home digital pictures instead of a local artist’s painting. The examples are endless. When families do not wish to drive in North Carolina, more is missed than transportation funding; the whole state feels the sting.
On July 1st, the state gas tax increased 2.5 cents to a whopping 35 cents a gallon (the feds tack on an additional tax of 17.5 cents). With this increase, North Carolina has surpassed Florida to impose the highest gas tax in the Southeast.
The state gas tax is based on a flat rate formula of 17.5 cents per gallon, coupled with a seven percent tax of the wholesale price of fuel. That means that in six months when the price of fuel is re-evaluated once again, there is a good chance the gas tax will creep up higher, discouraging even more people from filling up in North Carolina.
What is required now to ease the pain at the pump for consumers, as well as increase the customer base for North Carolina-owned gas stations and businesses, is the restoration of a gas tax ceiling. The notion was floated through the General Assembly this past legislative session, but failed after a lack of consensus as to how to make up the state revenue lost from decreased taxes. I’m not entirely convinced that this revenue is “lost” more than it is tied up in poorly planned projects and bureaucratic red tape, considering the multiple reports and studies concluding similarly.
North Carolina’s tourism industry and summertime economy rely too heavily on persons fueling their vehicles for legislators to take the gas tax lightly. Squeezed for time at the end of the previous legislative session, lawmakers must, in the future, take time to look at making transportation in North Carolina less costly for citizens and visitors alike.
This op-ed originally in appeared in Wake Weekly and the Lincoln Tribune