Q&A about DC’s gas tax

Nature's fuel

Who wouldn’t be happy about Mother Nature’s Fuel?

How is DC’s current gas tax computed?

It’s 8% on the wholesale price per gallon… with a floor of $2.94, so that the revenue doesn’t drop below the prior rate of $0.235 per gallon. Since 2015, the gas tax rate has been at that floor.

It’s levied at the same rate on a variety of fuels, including ” including gasoline, diesel fuel, benzol, benzene, naphtha, kerosene, heating oils, [and] all liquified petroleum gases.”

Why did DC change how its gas tax is computed?

Here’s some background from DCFPI about why that changed. Maryland and Virginia also shifted to a percentage basis around the same time.

When did the gas tax computation change?

It was Phil Mendelsohn’s idea, and it was implemented rather quickly:
– May 21, 2013 headline in the Post: “D.C. council chairman seeks shift in collecting fuel taxes.”
– May 22, 2013 headline: “D.C. Council agrees to scrap per-gallon gas tax in favor of levy on wholesale fuel.”

How else could the gas tax be computed?

Here’s one goofy idea: Burning a gallon of gas produces 19.64 pounds of carbon dioxide. One could thus levy “a motor fuels tax of $0.0133 per pound of carbon dioxide emissions that result from the fuel’s combustion,” which would result in a tax of:
– $0.235/gallon for gasoline with 10% ethanol (the usual mix around here)
– $0.261/gallon for pure gasoline (usually only sold as marine fuel around here)
– $0.298/gallon for pure diesel
– $0.276/gallon for pure biodiesel
Doing so would technically put a “carbon tax” on the books without appreciably raising existing tax rates, and providing a very small incentive for biofuels.

Of course, a recalculation is also an opportunity to harmonize rates with a neighboring jurisdiction… see below.

(Interesting fact: British Columbia applies its carbon tax to fuels on a per-liter basis.)

How does DC’s gas tax rate compare to its neighbors’?

Maryland’s current rate is equivalent to $0.335 per gallon. (Yes, that’s $0.10 higher than DC’s.) Virginia’s current rate is $0.162.

How might DC gas station owners react to an increased gas tax?

You’ll have to ask them, but I was struck by this passage in a 2011 CityPaper profile (by Christine McDonald) of Joe Mamo, who owns nearly half of DC’s gas stations:

“We are really a real estate company,” he says. “We’re in it for the real estate.” Mamo considers the coming transition inevitable, given the high cost of D.C. real estate and predictions about “peak oil,” alternative fuels, and electric cars that might eventually make gas stations obsolete. “Long term, the real estate is where the value is,” he says.

Smart growth and your Sierra Club local

Taking refuge

In California, trees hug you

I was recently updating the DC Sierra Club chapter’s web page on smart growth, on which I’ve added a few links to resources about the Club and Chapter’s heritage of smart growth advocacy. Even I was surprised at how thoroughly the Club’s key policies embrace smart growth.

The overarching “Sierra Club Strategic Plan Overarching Visionary Goals” document lists as two of its 21 strategies:

Maximize energy efficiency across all sectors, including transportation, urban design, and land use. […]

Protect our air, water, land, and communities from pollution. Promote environmentally sensitive land use and urban design to minimize sprawl, provide a healthy environment for all, and minimize resource use.

Interestingly, the strategy that calls to “Protect and restore wildlands and waterways” continues that those wildlands serve a specific, objective, quantifiable purpose: “to provide large and connected habitats.” Not to protect the favorite views of favored humans, or to protect property values for landowners, but to rescue non-human species from the threat of habitat fragmentation.

The Policy on Urban Environment, adopted by the board in 1986, states:

…the Sierra Club urges planning and policies which stimulate…
“Infill” residential and commercial development on unused or under-used land within city boundaries… Attractive, compact and efficient urban areas; with densities and mixtures of uses that encourage walking and transit use, and encourage more efficient use of private autos in balance with other transportation modes…
These development patterns and transit improvements would conserve energy, water, land and building materials while enhancing the pleasure and safety of urban life and reducing travel distances.

The Transportation Policy, adopted in 1994, supports policy and systems that “encourage land uses that minimize travel requirements; strengthen local communities, towns and urban centers.”

If your local Sierra Club entity is proving unnecessarily obtuse in not living up to these policies, I’d suggest engaging by appealing to the Club’s strong sense of tradition, deference to higher authorities (encoded in the “One Club” policy), broader principles, and yes, policies. One specific idea: ask them to review the “Guidelines Governing Decisions on Schools, Hospitals or Other Projects Serving Economically Disadvantaged Communities.” (Tell them “it’s on Club House, under Public Facilities.”) Those require specific steps before Club entities decide to oppose or endorse a public facility, with a specific mention of “low-income housing project” (and thus many large-scale infill developments subject to inclusionary requirements). Those steps require the Club to have a face-to-face listening session with those who will benefit, and a written assessment of the proposal and “any feasible environmentally superior alternatives” — which cannot include displacing housing to sprawling locations. Even where opposition by the Club may very well be warranted, the policy requires that it be thoughtful and considered, rather than knee-jerk.

Deck chairs on a sinking beach

I was pondering the testimony I delivered last May to the HPRB:

Where it all began

The original boundary stone at Jones Point.

Global warming poses a grave and imminent threat to not only humanity’s future, but to our shared past as well. In a recent issue of Preservation magazine, National Trust for Historic Preservation president Stephanie Meeks wrote that “as preservationists, it is incumbent on us to reckon with climate change bravely.” If left unchecked, the higher sea levels caused by global warming threaten the very existence of countless historic structures within the District of Columbia, including a great many of the surviving structures from its earliest days. For example, the original cornerstone of the District of Columbia (at Jones Point in Alexandria) was originally constructed on dry ground — but now sits below today’s sea level, hidden by an obtrusive concrete seawall and visible only through a protective cover. From the Jefferson Memorial to Randall School, Mayfair Mansions to Tingey House, global warming could very well obliterate scores of DC landmarks.

(The HPRB approved the application that day, and the building is moving towards construction this year.)

The sad thing about my statement today? Global warming will go pretty much unchecked under the present policy regime. Points-of-no-return are rapidly approaching for the terrestrial ice sheets of Greenland and West Antarctica; even with the boom in clean energy technology, there’s no stopping sea level from rising several meters or even many meters. Ten feet, twenty feet seem matter of course now; hundreds of feet is within the realm of possibility.

Is everything that we’re fight about within our low-lying cities about to go for naught — are we just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic?

As Ian Urbina noted in the Times in November, property sales in flood-prone coastal areas are already slowing suspiciously. It’s impossible to know exactly why, but the rising incidence and cost of even “nuisance” flooding (as extensively reported by Ryan McNeill, Deborah J. Nelson and Duff Wilson from Reuters last year might well be causing people to think twice about purchasing in flood-prone areas.

What happens when the defenses start to run out? Will land suddenly, or gradually, become worthless? One fascinating “natural” experiment to watch is in Palm Springs, where the Desert Sun’s Rosalie Murphy wrote about the consequences of the expiring land leases that underlie half of that city. Condos are going begging for buyers, since expiring land leases can’t be encumbered with fresh mortgages — but commercial development often continues apace, since the mortgage terms are shorter.

I appreciate that the Trust is thinking more intersectionally, to the point of reframing its work as “reurbanism.” But given the forecasts, it’s tough for me not to see a lot of local skirmishes over waterfront sites as pretty pointless.

McMillan isn’t next to Metro, which is less of a problem than you think

McMillan Reservoir

You can see the Capitol Dome from here. Photo by Eric Fidler, via Flickr

Yes, the McMillan Sand Filtration Site is one mile (from either end of the site) to the Red Line. It’s even 0.6 miles to the nearest express bus route (Georgia Avenue’s 79), and key network improvements are still in the planning stages. Yet from the point of view of someone who wants to reduce auto dependence (and the concomitant pollution, injury, and sprawl), what matters most is that MSFS is close to downtown, rather than close to Metro.

Transportation planning research has consistently shown that location relative to downtown and to other land uses is far more closely associated with the amount of driving than location relative to transit. Ewing and Cervero’s definitive 2010 meta-analysis (cited by 679 other scholarly articles) examined over 200 other studies, then combined the correlations found by 62 different studies:

Yes, it turns out that the number of miles that people drive is four-and-a-half times as closely correlated with the distance to downtown than with the distance to a transit stop. This strong relationship between driving and distance to downtown is borne out in local survey research by MWCOG/TPB. Note that whether an area has Metro access (like Largo or White Flint, vs. the Purple Line corridor) doesn’t actually seem to impact the number of drive-alone (SOV) trips.

Some suggest that development proposed for this site should instead go elsewhere. If the development is denied, those residents and employees and shoppers won’t just disappear, they’ll just go somewhere else. They won’t go to superior locations even closer to downtown and Metro (because those are so very plentiful!), but rather to far inferior locations. For instance, the life-sciences employers might choose an alternative location within our region that has already approved a similar mix of uses — such as Viva White Oak, Inova Fairfax, Great Seneca Science Corridor, and University Center in Ashburn, all of which are much further from both downtown and Metro.

This isn’t just the suburbs’ fault. Within the District, even more intensive development than what’s proposed at MSFS has already been given the go-ahead at locations such as the Armed Forces Retirement Home, Hecht Warehouse, and Buzzard Point. All of those sites are also inferior to MSFS from the standpoint of not just transit accessibility and distance to Metro Center, but also on all of the other factors shown to reduce VMT.

If the “Reasonable Development” types truly do care about reducing driving, I must have missed their years of caterwauling over the approval of all these other sites — not to mention the countless suburban developments that together pave over 100 acres of open space every single day in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. That’s why I give more credence to the people who do actually care about paving over the region, like the Piedmont Environmental Council — a/k/a the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Friday photo: Build in town, not edge towns, to cut carbon

edge town

The results are definitively in: when it comes to cutting carbon pollution from new development, location is far and away the most important factor. Even bad infill development will easily beat even the best greenfield design in terms of avoiding car trips — the single most climate-damaging activity in most Americans’ daily lives.

Kaid Benfield illustrates the point by contrasting the VMT per capita within some of the best suburban and urban neighborhood designs of recent years. Grounding his analysis in research, he writes:

[L]ocation is by far the most significant indicator of how much driving typically takes place to and from a given neighborhood. This is because of something called “destination accessibility”: outlying locations have fewer jobs, shopping opportunities, schools and other typical trip destinations within easy reach than do more central locations, causing average driving distances to be longer. (It is also generally easier in more central locations to substitute transit and walking for what would otherwise be driving trips, but such “mode shifts” are statistically less significant to vehicle miles traveled than are driving trip distances.) As a result, carbon emissions from outlying locations, per person and per household, tend to be higher – typically a lot higher – than those from closer-in locations.

It takes a lot of effort to create new “connected, complete communities” from scratch, since a “complete community” depends upon a myriad of services. When the first household arrives in an incomplete “edge town” (like Kitts Creek, shown above), they may be able to walk to other houses and some services. New services won’t arrive until there’s sufficient population to support them — and in many cases, rely upon people living even further out. Contrast that with a new house within an existing “complete community,” which already has all of that community’s services at their doorstep, from day one.

I’ll note that mode shift is less statistically significant because, outside of a few urban cores where destinations are so close by that walking is enjoyable and driving a pain, driving accounts for a substantial majority of Americans’ trips. That makes development within those few urban cores that much more important, in the scheme of shifting Americans away from automobility.

Thus, the most effective land use tool that urban planners have to address the global warming crisis — and at minimal public cost, to boot — is to make infill development easier.

Applied on a global scale (or even at a citywide scale), the potential is vast: 2014’s New Climate Economy report estimated that “compact, transit-oriented cities” could keep 1.8 billion tons (CO2 equivalent) of global warming pollution out of the air annually by 2050. That’s equivalent to decarbonizing the entire US transportation sector, or the economies of Russia or India.

Friday photo: The first sprouts in a freshly plowed field will be weeds

Country road again

An ecological analogy for retail:

Many of the plants we call weeds originally evolved in tough conditions, where there is annual glaciation, periodic flooding, or severe fires – extreme events that leave exposed, bare earth. It’s in these devastated conditions that our weeds are at home. They germinate first and grow the fastest. And through these characteristics they have found important roles in re-establishing healthy ecosystems… Once the weeds are established, longer-lived plants, less adapted to disturbance, germinate and the process of succession begins. The process may end in a grasslands, woodlands or forest, depending on the soil and climate. Indeed, the weeds create the conditions of their own inevitable demise – inevitable unless of course the disturbance recurs.

The “weedy species” that so many bemoan, the token dry-cleaners and fast-food joints that sprout in brand-new buildings, are one key to building a retail market. Over time, better adapted shops will take root — and given enough stability, species will evolve into very specific ecological niches. These new species will both adapt to their environment, and also change the environment around them. The key is to give the habitat time to evolve by avoiding excessive disturbance — a condition ecologists call “disclimax.”

Cultivating biodiversity requires striking the right balance between stability and renewal. The goal should be less to conserve individuals than to maintain the health of overall communities, to not seek out stasis forever but to manage change for the long term.

Gradual change within human communities also helps to sustain and build linkages, according to a paper by sociologist Katherine King: “A gradual pace of redevelopment resulting in historical diversity of housing significantly predicts social relations.”

Friday photo: Bonsai, artificial limits to growth, and humility

Phipps: bonsai since 1960

Cities are living things that require supporting infrastructure: physical infrastructure, social infrastructure, green infrastructure. They also need room to grow and change.

The exception that proves the rule are bonsai, “the most unnatural nature that exists,” and “like a verb…. not a noun — it’s doing.” Trees can survive when confined to tiny boxes that constrain their growth. This 55-year-old Scotch Pine at the Phipps Conservatory would, on a managed plantation, have a trunk one foot wide — wider than the magazine at right, about half the diameter of the planter this tree lives in — and be 60-80′ tall.

However, bonsai require a lot of care and feeding just to survive, including extensive pruning to thwart natural growth instincts. Without that pruning, the tree gradually consumes all of the soil’s nutrients and starves. All this intervention turns what should be a robust, independent tree into a fragile hothouse flower, subsisting on life support. At this juncture, even if it was freed from its constraints, this tree could never match the size of its wild counterpart. It’s a neat inversion of the usual relationship between man and nature, but like seeing a bored tiger at a zoo, it’s also a bit sad to see.

Natural systems also impose limits on their own sustainable growth, of course. Cycles see growth culminating in decline and death, then renewal and evolution. But nothing that’s alive stands perfectly still.

Those who propose to stop growth should have the humility to acknowledge that doing so will change the very nature of growing things. By giving themselves free rein to change the city, they are placing a tremendous burden on the resources of future generations.