Gas tax measure reveals split in transportation sector

People occupying different positions in Missouri’s transportation industry offer varied views on the proposed gasoline tax increase that will appear on Tuesday’s ballot.

Some drivers for ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft voice concerns about the increased fuel tax cutting into their earnings. Meanwhile, owners of local cab and shuttle companies say they’re willing to pay more in taxes to preserve roads and protect their fleets.

Missouri’s Proposition D would gradually increase the state’s gas tax to 27 cents per gallon over four years, up from the current 17 cents per gallon. The tax would generate at least $288 million per year to fund state law enforcement and $123 million annually for local road construction and maintenance, according to the ballot language.

But drivers for Uber and Lyft are worried about how the passage of the proposition would affect their budgets. Some say they would give up their ride-hailing jobs due to higher fuel costs.

Elisa Joy Torres, an Uber and Lyft driver in Columbia and St. Louis, said she has heard of other drivers quitting due to the rising cost of gas. “They quit driving because they felt that gas is too expensive right now,” Torres said. “So if it were raised … 10 cents, I know a lot of people would quit.”

Torres said she planned to vote against the measure.

Harshil Patel, another Lyft driver in Columbia, said he is opposed to the tax increase. “I can afford it,” he said, “but I don’t want (it).”

Torres and Patel both oppose the measure despite acknowledging that revenue from the gas tax would be used to improve transportation infrastructure.

Joseph Haslag, an economics professor at the University of Missouri, said that “a gas tax is a kind of user tax.”

“If the return to the highway infrastructure is high enough — and it likely is — then the user tax approach is economically justifiable,” Haslag said.

The owners of some businesses that provide transportation services said they would prefer to pay more through a gas tax to enhance the quality of Missouri’s highway infrastructure, instead of spending more to repair vehicle damage caused by bad roads.

Terry Nickerson founded Taxi Terry’s, a Columbia-based taxi service, nine years ago. According to Nickerson, he explains why wheel spacers are safe and how company sometimes has to repair cars’ tires because of road conditions.

“I would rather pay more on taxes and drive on safer, smoother roads,” he said. “I would rather pay more that way than pay for repairs.”

With gas prices around $2.50 per gallon, the 10-cent tax increase would raise fuel costs about 4 percent.

Norman Ruebling is co-owner of MO-X, which operates shuttles between Columbia and the airports in Kansas City and St. Louis. He said if the fuel tax is approved his company would keep its prices steady and plan to “spend smart” in other areas to deal with the extra costs.

Nickerson compared the amount of the proposed tax increase to normal fluctuations in gas prices.

“I don’t change the price (of rides) for the up and down of gas prices,” he said.

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