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A Penny-a-Gallon Gas Tax?

Californians must start paying real costs at the pump, a bipartisan transportation group focused on national security says.

They call it the “transportation energy security fee,” and they say it would help wean California off its $150 million-per-day gasoline addiction.

The California Secure Transportation Energy Partnership (CalSTEP), a bipartisan group of industry, automotive, business, academic and nonprofit professionals, wants the state to levy a gradual tax on gasoline of an additional penny per gallon per month, increasing to $1.20 per gallon in 10 years. Every year, the group says, the extra “fee" — not "tax" — would generate an additional $1 billion in revenues for roads, buses, trains and investments in clean transportation technologies, rising to $20 billion in the 10th year and cutting the demand for gas by 5 percent.

“It’s an insurance policy against a real national and state security threat posed by oil dependence,” James Sweeney, a CalSTEP member and Stanford University engineer, told reporters during an online press conference today.

CalStep’s ambitious action plan, unveiled on Jan. 31, gives national security and the economy equal billing with climate change and air quality as the chief reasons for shifting transportation away from oil. Since the federal government has failed to tackle the problem, CalSTEP says, California must take the lead, just as it has on air quality and climate change.

“We’re not just a state, we’re a big enterprise,” said George Schultz, a member of the group, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and the secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan. “We have seen this before, where we wind up with the federal government adopting [California’s] standard. We’ve always been a leader.”

Asked about potential opposition from climate change skeptics in government, Schultz said, “Climate change is one of those problems that comes at you gradually. Once it’s there and really visible, you can’t turn it back off again. The economy and national security, we can get hold of. So we’ve got to keep that argument alive.”

Just 15 years ago, California produced most of its own oil or purchased it from Alaska. Today, nearly half of what the state consumes is imported from abroad, and nearly half of that comes from Saudia Arabia and Iraq. In 2006 alone, California spent $25 billion on imported oil. Meanwhile, people driving alone make up 73 percent of all commuter trips in California.

“Conventional fuels and automobile-centric development patterns are familiar, comfortable and entrenched in both our minds and our policies,” CalSTEP says.

Dennis McGinn, a retired U.S. Navy vice admiral and member of the group, addressed the roller coaster volatility of oil prices. “The dips are going to get deeper, and the turns are going to get sharper.

“This posture of over-reliance on fossil fuels is exploitable by those who wish to do us harm,” McGinn said. The Straits of Hormuz, located between Iran and Oman, could be shut down someday in response to sanctions, he warned. Forty percent of the world’s oil that is traded by sea passes through there.

“We need to recognize that this challenge is real and affects us economically and militarily,” McGinn said. “We’re spending tremendous amounts of money putting American lives at risk, protecting sources of oil in unstable regions. Business as usual is not a viable option.”

In addition to the proposed gas tax, CalSTEP recommended indefinitely extending regional and state government funding for clean transportation technologies at the present levels of $500 million to $700 million per year. This funding is set to expire in the near future. In addition, the group urged state and local governments to re-examine policies that encourage people to drive, such as free road use, flat-rate auto insurance and cheap parking. To meet the state’s air quality goals, CalSTEP said, California must reduce its gasoline demand by 15 percent below 2003 standards by 2020.

“These recommendations don’t have labels on them,” McGinn said. “This isn’t a Republican or Democratic issue, or conservative or liberal. Some of our petrodollars find their way to regimes that are not aligned with our national values. We are funding both sides of the war on terror. We can do something about it.”