I’ve been flying sixteen years now, and the specter of user fees has haunted the general aviation community the entire time. Longer, in fact.
The history of these proposals has been summarized by AOPA if you care to know the full background, but one thing not many of us remember is that these taxes were first proposed to Congress nearly two decades ago by… who was it again? Oh, that’s right: the industry itself. Yes, it was the airlines who first urged the adoption of user fees “as a mechanism to fund the FAA in a balanced federal budget.”
They’ve been proposed again and again over the ensuing decades, and every time we have managed to fight them back. But something tells me the day is coming when we’re going to tell fantastic stories to future generations about the days when it was possible to crank over the engine without writing a check to the federal government (and probably being monitored via ADS-B, video cameras, data recorders, and more — but that’s a battle for another post).
If we’ve managed to keep user fees at bay this long, what’s to say we couldn’t continue to do the same, you ask? The answer comes from the Washington Post, which today reports that “the Obama administration Tuesday opened the door for states to collect tolls on interstate highways to raise revenue for roadway repairs. The proposal, contained in a four-year, $302 billion White House transportation bill, would reverse a long-standing federal prohibition on most interstate tolling.”
The proposal isn’t for the Feds to collect the taxes, but rather to allow states to do so. Still, think about this for a moment, and look at the statistics on passenger vehicles in the United States. There are more than 250,000,000 cars on the road in this country, and we produce more than 10.5 million of them annually. Compare that with the virtually non-existent production of GA airplanes and the approximately 200,000 airframes in our national fleet. As helpful as AOPA and it’s 400,000 members may be, they pale in comparison to the Automobile Club’s 54 million, not to mention their 40,000 full-time employees or the army of Washington lobbyists at their disposal.
If the U.S. auto industry can’t keep our country’s 47,000 miles of freeways from devolving into tollways, what chance does general aviation have? How would political support for avoiding user fees hold up among the Congressional General Aviation Caucus when every American with a car had to pay them on a daily basis? That’s to say nothing of the gas tax, which I’m sure would continue to be levied just as our aviation fuel taxes would be in the event of a user fee implementation.
We shouldn’t be surprised by this development. Major cities like London and Singapore have had congestion pricing schemes for years, and the same thing is in the works for the U.S. One look at the federal expenditures shows how entitlement spending is eating up a larger and larger percentage of a budget which is already hundreds of billions in the hole each and every year.
I don’t want to get too deep into the political rabbit hole here — tempting as that may be — but whatever your inclination toward American social spending, there’s no debating the fact that we are approaching a day when that spending will consume every penny of the budget, no matter what happens on the revenue side. So keep watching, because you’re going to see taxes on every single thing you do, and aviation will be near the top of the list.
Let’s face it, the freeways were never really free. I think one day kids will ask about why they’re called “freeways”, just as they now inquire about how scenic Orange County got its name (hint: they used to have a lot more agriculture here). The gas tax may not have been indexed to keep up with inflation, but there is a mechanism for raising it, and drivers pay that tax every time they fill up.
I probably don’t need to articulate a list of reasons why tolls are a poor idea, but if you’re interested in a list here’s a pretty compelling start.
My concern about user fees has more to do with the precedent than the amount. Even if it was a nickel, the problem is that the door is open and it’s quite easy to raise the levy. Pretty soon they’re removing a Washington from your wallet. Then a Jackson, and before you know it a Franklin. Or two. Every time you want to fly. Perhaps that’s how this could end: you’ll have all the freedom in the world to fly, just as they do in Europe. But there’s no way anyone could afford it.
So it might be time for us to shift our efforts toward stopping transportation user fees in general. If drivers don’t raise much of a fuss about this, passenger vehicles will be saddled with it, and you can bet we’d be next.