Last updated: February 16. 2013 9:36PM - 258 Views

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Did the Obama administration hit a home run with its new fuel mileage standards for passenger vehicles, or was the announcement last week just another way to weasel out of tougher – and smarter – approaches to reducing dependence on oil and cutting emissions?

Here's what happened: The administration said the "fleet average" fuel economy of cars and light trucks would have to reach 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. That sounds really ambitious and if achieved will stretch a gallon further while cutting tailpipe emissions in half. The reality is less astounding; according to the Associated Press, real-world mileage will be closer to 40 mpg, still a huge jump over the present low 20s.

Car makers were reported to have mixed feelings about the standards. While they're happy to have firm targets to aim for, they fear car buyers may resist buying fuel-efficient vehicles, which tend to be smaller than we're accustomed to.

Still, the biggest driver of car-buying behavior "ultimately goes to the question of ‘What's the price of gasoline?' " Gloria Bergquist, vice president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers told ABC News.

So there's the problem with imposing lofty standards. If gas prices remain bearable, car shoppers will want to stick with larger vehicles – and selling more of them will make it impossible for car makers to meet the goal. Remember, it's an average that will be influenced by the mix of vehicles sold; too many SUVs and the average falls below the target.

On top of that, mandates require bureaucracies to manage and measure. Even more troubling if you want to see better mileage and fewer emissions become reality, they are subject to the whims of the executive branch. That means a change in administrations could mean an end to the standards.

Why go to all this trouble, when a simpler, more effective and more long-lasting approach is available? What's that? Raise the tax on motor fuels and create real demand for high-mpg vehicles. Rather than a stick alone – keep reasonable standards, too, at least for emissions – car makers would have a market-driven carrot as an incentive. Instead of pleasing Uncle Sam, they'd have to satisfy millions of customers.

The bonus is badly needed dollars that could – and should – be directed at fixing and expanding transportation infrastructure. Not just roads and bridges, but trams and trains, too.

Both liberal and conservative politicians hate this idea, at least in public, because it would draw the wrath of just about every segment of the population. While libs promise we can get there without much pain – except maybe on the car makers – the right abhors any talk of taxes, maintaining dishonestly that everything will be fine if we just drill more oil wells off the beaches.

I'll bet most readers, if they've made it this far, are fuming at the mention of higher gas taxes while the economy is struggling. "Wait until it gets better," they might say, when people can more easily afford to pay more for gas. But we've been there, and no one dared raise the issue when gas prices were low.

If anything, we've been going in the other direction; the federal tax rate was last reset in 1993 to 18.3 cents per gallon of gasoline. Accounting for inflation, that would be 29 cents today. And we wonder why there's not enough money to fix the roads.

But don't' worry, aside from making a lot of people mad, this idea – floated by some well-known conservatives as well – is likely to languish as long as voters believe politicians' fairy tales and would rather dodge potholes than foot the bill for better roads.

Ron Bartizek, Times Leader business editor, may be reached at rbartizek@timesleader.com or 570-970-7157.

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