Fri, 27 Jun 1997

LebEnv # 31

New Car Taxes

by Fareed Abou-Haidar


Cars are flooding Lebanon. Consider these grim facts, as presented by Fouad Sinyoura, minister of state for financial affairs. Seventy-five thousand cars are imported annually at a cost of some $800 million. There are 1.3 million cars in the country. (In 1995 while in Beirut, I read that just before the war started, there were only about 250,000 cars in the whole country!) There is one car for every three people. That's a ratio higher than that of the United States, supposedly the most car-oriented country in the world, the country that includes Los Angeles, where Car is King! This is despite the fact that the legal driving age in the U.S. is two years less than in Lebanon (16, even 15-and-a-half if with an adult, versus 18 in Lebanon).

The problem is very obvious. Walk the streets of Beirut, and you are likely to arrive to your destination faster than a car going there! Cars are everywhere, clogging the streets like volcanic lava and playing musical chairs for the limited parking spaces. Before the government cracked down, sidewalks were being used as parking spaces, forcing pedestrians onto the street; double-parking was also normal. Try to get to the mountains on a weekend, and you will spend much of your time stuck in stinking traffic; you wonder about the net benefits of trying to get to the cool, fresh air of the mountains; if it's worth it. More and more of the country's small surface area is being sacrificed to cars in the form of more roads and wider highways, to no apparent benefit. (The cars simply increase accordingly to fill up the new roads, a phenomenon that has been observed in such car-oriented U.S. cities like L.A. and Phoenix.) The air is unfit to breathe. Fly into Lebanon, and on the final approach you will see an ugly, brown cloud obscuring much of Beirut and the lower mountains.

The government realized we have a problem here, and decided to take a hard approach in an extraordinary cabinet session on June 10, 1997. Taxes for cars worth over $10,000 have been drastically increased. They start at 50 percent, and shoot up to 200 percent for luxury cars costing over $65,000. Taxes for new cars worth under $10,000 will remain at 20 percent., and used cars will be taxed $3,250.

Sinyoura said that these taxes would discourage car ownership and increase the use of public transport. Protecting the environment was also given as a reason, according to a news piece by XINHUA. Not mentioned but also a good reason is the fact that more of Lebanon's money would remain inside the country, hopefully to be used for more-beneficial things.

It's about time. Too many Lebanese have become as spoilt as their American counterparts, wanting a car for every person of the family, wanting to drive for the shortest trips around town, all too often for showoff purposes. The streets of summer mountain resorts are clogged with expensive cars going around in circles. The Hummer, a very expensive, huge, military-style, off-road vehicle is available for those who want to conquer Qornet el-Sawda without having to hike to it.

Here's hoping the government will develop a state-of-the-art mass public transit system in Lebanon to serve as an alternative to driving. Beirut should have a fleet of modern, air-conditioned buses that run frequently all days of the week. Trains should run from Tyre to Tripoli and beyond, as well as to Damascus, Ba'alback, and other destinations on the existing (and repaired) tracks. More buses should serve areas not reached by train. Beirut's streets would become safe enough that pedestrians and even bicyclists (rarely seen at present) would no longer fear for their lives.

Finally, the government should make sure that the existing fleet of cars is well-maintained. The taxes will likely encourage people to hold on to their cars longer; the cars should not be allowed to degenerate into smoke-belching clunkers held together with masking tape, that litter the roads will tailpipes, bumpers, fenders, nuts, bolts, and engine blocks wherever they go. Annual emissions tests need to be introduced to ensure clean-burning engines.

In short, the government should be commended for taking such a bold step to stem a problem that was raging out of control, but should be careful of unintended consequences, such as pollution from cars being kept beyond their useful lifetime.

(See other photographs from some of the areas mentioned above.)



Created 980112/bl