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Posts about Gas Taxes

Government


Two senators (one of whom is a Republican!) propose a 12-cent gas tax increase

There are several proposals on the table to stave off the impending insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund (which pays for transit, biking, and walking projects too) in two months. Just now, two senators teamed up to announce one that might actually have a chance.


Photo from the Office of Senator Corker.

Senators Bob Corker (R-TN) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) have proposed increasing the gas tax by 12 cents a gallon over two years. The federal gas tax currently stands at 18.4 cents a gallon, where it has been set since 1993, when gas cost $1.16 a gallon. The senators' proposal would also extend some expiring tax cuts as a way to reduce the impact on Americans.

"I know raising the gas tax isn't an easy choice, but we're not elected to make easy decisionswe're elected to make the hard ones," said Murphy. "This modest increase will pay dividends in the long run and I encourage my colleagues to get behind this bipartisan proposal."

This proposalwhile still not introduced as a formal billhas far more potential than anything else that's been offered. President Obama's corporate tax scheme was dead on arrival, even though it had support from the Republican chair of the Ways and Means Committee, Dave Camp. Rep. Peter DeFazio's idea of a per-barrel oil fee and Sen. Barbara Boxer's idea for a wholesale oil tax don't have Republican support. Neither does Rep. Earl Blumenauer's 15-cent gas tax hike, which was the most logical proposal on the table, until now. What the House Republicans want to do is fund the transportation bill by reducing Saturday postal servicea hare-brained scheme if ever there was one.

What gives this proposal a fighting chance, of course, is Bob Corker's name on it. Not only is Corker a Republican, but he's a respected leader on the Banking Committee. It's also a sign that maybe, just maybe, as we stare down the barrel of a real funding shortfall, members of Congress might find the gumption to do what they all know needs to be done: raise the gas tax.

"In Washington, far too often, we huff and puff about paying for proposals that are unpopular, yet throw future generations under the bus when public pressure mounts on popular proposals that have broad support," said Corker. "Congress should be embarrassed that it has played chicken with the Highway Trust Fund and allowed it to become one of the largest budgeting failures in the federal government. If Americans feel that having modern roads and bridges is important then Congress should have the courage to pay for it."

The CBO has said that a one-cent increase in the gas tax would net $1.5 billion a year. That means this 12-cent increase would bring in exactly the $18 billion needed annually to fund the Senate's six-year transportation bill. And perhaps most importantly, Corker and Murphy propose indexing the tax to inflation so it remains viable in the future.

"A return to stable funding will ensure that our states and communities can repair aging roads, bridges and transit systems and build the infrastructure we need for a growing economy," said James Corless, director of Transportation for America, in a statement. "The alternative is to allow our transportation system to crumble along with an economy hobbled by crapshoot commutes and clogged freight corridors."

The president and CEO of AAA, which just came out in favor of a gas tax increase, agreed. "Many Americans are willing to pay a little more if it will lead to improved transportation and a better commute," said Bob Darbelnet in a statement.

Cross-posted from Streetsblog USA.

Government


Was last year's Virginia transportation bill a bait and switch?

Last year, Virginia legislators passed a bipartisan transportation bill that promised to give Northern Virginia the authority to plan and fund its own transportation projects. Now that the money is flowing, a bevy of new bills seek to wrest control of funding from locals, and send it back to Richmond.


Dollar lure image from Shutterstock.com.

The issue is that some legislators feel the only way to solve Northern Virginia's transportation problems is by building and expanding highways, and they want to prevent local governments from doing anything else. To them, money spent on public transportation is better spent on ensuring that everyone has the "freedom" to only be able to drive to work.

But unlike many parts of the state, transit has proven its value in Northern Virginia. For communities that have tried for decades to raise their own taxes to implement their own priorities, these proposals are a gross violation of bipartisan trust, and a clear bait and switch.

Bob Marshall's bills

Delegate Bob Marshall (R-Bull Run) never wanted Northern Virginia to have its own money in the first place. He unsuccessfully sued to stop the process. Since that didn't work, he's now submitted a HB40, a bill to repeal the new funds.

But that's unlikely to pass, so Marshall is hedging his bets with HB41, a bill to have the statewide Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) pick projects that Northern Virginia is allowed to build, instead of the locally-controlled Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA).

Marshall also has a third bill, HB84, to remove state elected officials from the NVTA board. That would seem to give locals more strength on the board, but if Marshall's second bill to strip NVTA of its powers goes through, what would be the point?

Jim LeMunyon's bills

Jim LeMunyon (R-Chantilly) is trying the opposite tactic. Instead of cutting the NVTA's authority, his HB425 would increase the number of General Assembly legislators on NVTA's board, thus effectively weakening representation from the counties and cities.

A second bill, HB793, requires VDOT to suggest which projects NVTA will build. It does not ask for any input from Virginia's corresponding transit agency, the Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT).

Finally, HB426 would simply bypass NVTA completely, and require VDOT to widen I-66 inside the beltway, over Arlington's objections. The bill is written so that only an auto-based option could be considered. Even when 66 already has a transit option that could be improved and extended in any number of ways that could move more people than an extra lane.

David LaRock's bills

David LaRock (R-Sterling) is sponsoring HB635, a draconian bill that would block NVTA from funding new transit projects, instead forcing them to fund only projects that help highways.

And just in case NVTA can build a case that transit projects do help highways, LaRock also filed HB653 to restrict it to using no more than 25% of its own money on mass transportation projects, no matter what.

Finally, LaRock is sponsoring two bills attempting to override the local authority that sets toll rates on the Dulles Toll Road.

HB647 would outlaw use of any state money on construction of Phase 2 of the Silver Line, unless the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) matches the toll rate for its airport lanes (currently free) to the toll rate on the Dulles Toll Road.

This is seen as a move that would force MWAA to lower its overall toll rates, since it wants to keep its Dulles access lanes as free or cheap as possible.

Lastly, LaRock has also sponsored HJ84, a resolution that asks Congress to intervene and lower the tolls set by MWAA.

Others

Christopher Stolle (R-Virginia Beach) proposes HB2, requiring that all allocations to the Northern Virginia highway district go towards highway congestion relief projects. It's not clear whether that means only VDOT money, or all funding for Northern Virginia including NVTA money, but either way it would prohibit spending on things like safety or maintenance projects.

Finally, David Albo (R-Lorton) is sponsoring HB281, which stops NVTA from spending money on joint projects with DC or Maryland unless the costs are borne exactly equally. This would make it harder to fund regional projects like 8-car Metro trains, and could end up costing Virginia big money on projects where it would make more sense for Virginia to contribute less than 50%.

Stark contrast

These delegates, all Republicans, represent constituencies that are from the farthest reaches of the Washington metro area, or even outside it completely. Their legislative priorities reflect a desire to ensure that people living in far-out areas can quickly drive around the region. They don't think that it's possible that making sure people closer to the region's core have more transit options could even benefit those driving from farther away.

This flies in stark contrast with NVTA, which functions well and tries to accommodate the needs of everyone. NVTA allows outer suburban jurisdictions to build the roads they want, while also allowing the more urban ones to focus on transit, cyclists, and pedestrians.

It's ironic that Republicans who emphasize small government would support something that takes away power from local governments. If you'd like Northern Virginia to have control over its transportation future, you can tell them here.

Roads


Will Montgomery fund new transit, or build more roads?

Maryland's gas tax increase means it now has the most transportation funding in a generation. Will Montgomery County spend its share on transit to support its urban centers, or keep building highways?


Downtown Silver Spring. Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

Coupled with existing revenues, the new gas tax has made $15 billion available for transportation, a 52% increase from last year and the most transportation funding in a generation. This month, the County Council will send the state a list of their transportation priorities in order to receive some of that money. As in past years, there are a number of road projects on the list.

But the Planning Board, noting the high cost of new highways and efforts to direct future growth to urban centers, urged the council to choose transit instead. Transit isn't "the answer to every transportation problem," they write, but "where roadway widenings to solve perennial traffic congestion would significantly affect existing communities, natural resources and parkland, a more efficient solution is needed."

Funding would give county's transit plans teeth

Not all of the projects on the list are likely to receive funding. But if they were, the county's transit network could expand dramatically.

Some projects already have the support of county and state officials, including the Purple Line and Corridor Cities Transitway. Also included are funds for more 8-car trains on the Red Line, which will allow Metro to stop turning trains around at Silver Spring instead of running them to the end of the line at Glenmont.

There's also funding to build three of the county's proposed BRT lines along Georgia Avenue, Route 29, and Veirs Mill Road, as well as studying future lines on Rockville Pike and New Hampshire Avenue. A proposed HOV lane on I-270 could eventually support transit between White Flint and Tysons Corner. Planners also recommend funding new sidewalks and bike paths along Georgia Avenue between Forest Glen Road and 16th Street, which the State Highway Administration is currently studying, and a pedestrian underpass at the Forest Glen Metro station.

These projects would serve the county's existing urban centers, like Silver Spring and Bethesda, by giving people alternatives to driving. And they would support the development of future ones like White Oak, where County Executive Ike Leggett envisions a research and technology hub.

Planners say transit would better serve growth areas

But many of the road projects in the priorities list could undermine those efforts, whether by directing funding away from transit or by encouraging more people to drive there.

The priorities list includes three interchanges along Route 29 in East County, at Stewart Lane, Tech Road, and Greencastle Road, which have been in planning for decades and would cost $344 million. (Maryland has already set aside $7 million to design a fourth interchange at Fairland Road, estimated to cost $128 million to build.) Under the county's traffic tests, they have to be built before development in White Oak can happen.

County planners estimate that the three interchanges would cost the same to build as an 11-mile BRT line along the same corridor between downtown Silver Spring and Burtonsville. They say transit would not only better support the creation of a town center in White Oak, but give commuters from points north an alternative to driving, ultimately reducing local congestion.

"We believe that prioritizing the [Route 29] transit corridor improvements is the better choice," their report says.

Other road projects on the list include funds to build Montrose Parkway, a highway that would divide White Flint and Twinbrook. And there's a proposal to widen Norbeck Road between Georgia Avenue and Layhill Road and build an interchange at Georgia, even though the road runs parallel to the underused Intercounty Connector a half-mile away.

Maryland's new transportation funds present a rare opportunity to the state and Montgomery County, its economic engine. Some road improvements may be necessary and beneficial, especially in the county's suburban areas. But the county's urban centers are where most of its future growth will happen, and they need transit to thrive. We have to make the right choice now, because we may not get it again for a long time.

Government


Topic of the week: No more federal gas tax?

A new bill in the House of Representatives proposes eliminating the federal gas tax and making states pay for roads and transit themselves. Would that be good or bad for transportation?


Photo by RW PhotoBug on Flickr.

The Transportation Empowerment Act (TEA), by Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Representative Tom Graves (R-Georgia), would virtually eliminate the federal gasoline tax over a 5-year period and devolve the responsibility of funding roads and transit to the states. It now has 19 co-sponsors in the House. We asked a few contributors to give their thoughts on how it could affect transportation funding.

David Cranor: This could be made workable. First, we could devolve gas taxes to states. Then, we could take the general funds used to enhance state funding to pay for Transportation Enhancements, recreation trails, Amtrak, TIGER, and so on.

The upside is that it gets rid of all the belly-aching and actually means less money for roads, unless states raise their gas taxes. The downside is that it reduces political support for non-car transportation.

David Edmondson: If the federal government cuts the gas tax and its investments in transportation, this would undoubtedly be bad for transit and non-car modes of transportation. But there may be a silver lining.

Despite the best efforts of advocates, federal transportation dollars overwhelmingly favor roadway projects, and most of those are highways or overbuilt arterials. And, given that these are often capital projects, the end result is high maintenance costs on localities that wouldn't have built the project in the first place if the money weren't "free" from the feds.

If states raise their own gas tax to match the loss, they'd be able to use that money how they see fit. A whole slew of federal strings would come off, freeing states to make the decisions they think they ought. While that might mean more questionable interchanges in Wisconsin, that state will actually need to pay for them entirely.

Advocates' fear that states won't raise their gas tax are certainly valid, of course. The tax discourages driving and was designed to fund infrastructure of national importance. Eliminating it would cut the federal government's ability to do either of those things. Yet the chance to cut all the bloat and waste advocates fight against and this money encourages would be quite a silver lining.

Matt Johnson: In Georgia, Graves' home state, the state constitution expressly prohibits the expenditure of gasoline tax revenues on anything other than roads, so without federal money, the Peach State would essentially only invest in highways. That's actually not a huge change.

MARTA, which operates rail, bus, and paratransit in Fulton and DeKalb counties is the largest transit agency in the country that receives no funding from the state government. Of course, MARTA was able to build their rail system using local and federal funds. But without the federal share, it would have been impossible.

Which is probably what Graves and Lee want. After all, the GOP has long suggested that investing in transit is a wasteful subsidy, while investing in roads is a sound investment for economic development.

According to Senator Lee, "Under the Transportation Empowerment Act, Americans would no longer have to send significant gas-tax revenue to Washington, where sticky-fingered politicians, bureaucrats, and lobbyists take their cut before sending it back with strings attached." [emphasis added]

Of course, this isn't accurate. According to a Government Accountability Office report from September 2011, both Georgia and Utah are winners in the transportation dollar lottery. Both states got $1.10 back in federal transportation dollars for every $1.00 they sent to Washington between 2005 and 2009.

Of course, they're no different from the other 48 states. But wait a minute: aren't there winners and losers? Doesn't at least one state have to be a donor state?

No. Because Washington doesn't just allocate gas tax revenues. They also send general fund revenues off to transportation projects.

So not only are those sticky-fingered lobbyists not stealing from Georgians to fund highway projects in Yankeeland, but the federal government is actually gifting Georgians (and Utahans) a little extra money on the side. Or to translate that into GOP-speak, "it smacks of socialism."

The idea, of course, is to just let the states take over and use a more locally-focused approach that works best for them. Federalism and all that.

But anyone want to put the odds on whether a state like Georgia would actually raise their own gas tax to compensate? Yeah, I didn't think so.

The real goal is of course, to stop spending money on transportation altogether. But that's okay. It's DOA in the Senate.

Canaan Merchant: Any transportation project is going to try to combine its funding from all levels of government. This bill is just the latest example of trying to come up with a standard across a large country with a very diverse population and large number of situations that require specific and different solutions.

Yonah Freemark of the Transport Politic has considered the question as well. He argues that the basic scheme where the federal government provides funding for construction while states and cities pay for operations and maintenance is backward.

Local governments may benefit from being able to not have to compete against dozens of other projects for federal funding while the federal government can ensure that service doesn't take a dive in lean budget years for localities.

Now that may not be optimal in the end, but it may be beneficial to completely reconsider how and who funds transportation projects across the country.

Budget


DC Council makes major policy changes overnight

Virginia and Maryland changed their gas taxes this year. Both proposals included weeks or months of debate, including public hearings before the legislature. DC made a similar change yesterday. The total time from the first news story about it to final vote? Less than a day.


Photo by Jenn Durfey on Flickr.

In DC's budget process, the mayor releases a proposed budget. Various council committees hold hearings over a period of weeks on their portions of the budget. Committee chairs then schedule markups, and just before the markups, release a draft of what they plan to change.

If the committee approves the changes, they all go to the council chairman, who then tries to assemble them into a budget. Habitually, the chairman releases his own budget late the night before the council is set to vote on the budget. If unexpected changes come up, that gives little time for residents to contact their councilmembers.

When then-Chairman Gray decided to cut streetcar funding in 2010, for instance, most councilmembers found out that morning. In a very short time, we, other blogs, residents using social media, and others were able to spread the word, which drove 1,000 calls to the chairman's office in just 3 hours. Even so, it wasn't in time to stop the Council from cutting the streetcar program. Instead, after lunch, they had to take a separate vote to restore the funding.

At each phase of the process, new ideas come up, and there is less time to react. There's plenty of opportunity to weigh in on the mayor's budget. But committee chairs don't publicly circulate a draft of the changes they're thinking about before any hearing. Most residents found out, for instance, about Mary Cheh's plan to extend the Circulator to the Cathedral, Howard University, and Waterfront Metro, and pay for it with a fare increase, the night before or day of her committee's vote.

Residents still had time to lobby council to reverse changes, as happened when Muriel Bowser suddenly and unexpectedly sliced funding for a Capitol Riverfront development project in favor of Ward 4 projects. After considerable pushback, Mendelson reversed part of that change yesterday.

But any ideas that come from the chairman have virtually no opportunity for public input. For some changes, those which are changes to the law to support the budget rather than the budget itself, the council has to pass its Budget Support Act twice, so the council could change things on its second reading. Still, that's more difficult; members have already voted for something by that time.

This year, Chairman Phil Mendelson's surprise budget changes went beyond just adding or removing funding for programs. He made some significant policy changes, like the gas tax. Other amendments put new requirements on government agencies' ability to execute programs that already exist. We'll talk about some of those next week.

If the Council restructured the gas tax or made other changes in a standalone bill, there would have to be a hearing, a markup, and two votes. But if the chairman slips a change into the budget the night before the budget vote, it means no hearing, no markup, and virtually no time for residents to weigh in.

Chairman Mendelson is very smart, but he can't think of every implication of a policy. The gas tax switch might be a good idea, but that's not the point. Maybe people have arguments against it that I haven't heard, or Mendelson's staff hasn't heard. Even if it's the right choice, it's dangerous to make even a good move so hastily.

There's a reason the legislative process is supposed to take some time. Residents need an opportunity to see the chairman's final proposal, plus any amendments members plan to introduce, more than a few hours before the vote.

And even a day or two still isn't the right amount for changes that go beyond simply deciding how much money to spend on what programs. Changes like the gas tax shift deserve to at least be part of a committee markup; most likely, changes of such significance ought to happen in standalone bills that get their own hearings and real deliberative thought.

Transit


O'Malley announces first projects using new gas tax money

Today, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley signed the transportation funding bill that passed the legislature this year. The governor also announced a list of projects that would get some of the money, including MARC expansion and studies for the Purple Line and Baltimore Red Line.


Photo by the author.

The tax will start this summer, and will help fund transportation projects across the state. The increased tax was a key part of O'Malley's 2013 legislative agenda, and is expected to generate $800 million more for transportation each year.

After the governor signed the bill, his office released a list of "first round" projects that will get some of the increased revenues. This list totals $1.2 billion, but over the first 6 years, the tax should generate $4.4 billion.

Of the $1.2 billion, $650 million (54%) will go to transit. However, a large portion of that funds studies rather than actual construction. Money will go to MARC to add weekend service on the Penn Line and 2 new weekday roundtrips on the Camden Line, and to purchase new locomotives.

Here is the full list.

Transit projects:

  • $100 million for MARC enhancements, including Penn Line weekend service, 2 new Camden Line weekday roundtrips, and new locomotives.
  • $280 million for final design for the Purple Line.
  • $170 million for final design for the Red Line in Baltimore.
  • $100 million for final design for the Corridor Cities Transitway in Montgomery County.
Road projects:
  • $125 million for construction of an interchange between I-270 and Watkins Mill Road in Montgomery County.
  • $100 million for construction of an interchange at Kerby Hill Road and Indian Head Highway in Prince George's.
  • $49 million for widening US 29 to three lanes from Seneca Drive to MD 175 in Howard County.
  • $82 million for construction of an interchange on US 15 at Monocacy Boulevard in Frederick.
  • $20 million for design of a new Thomas Johnson Bridge between Calvert and St. Mary's counties.
  • $60 million for reconstruction of in interchange at I-695 and Leeds Avenue in Baltimore County.
  • $44 million for BRAC-related construction near Aberdeen Proving Ground.
  • $54 million for construction of a new interchage on US 301 at MD 304 on the Eastern Shore.

Budget


Driving still a historical bargain after Maryland gas tax hike

There is much hand-wringing over the proposed Maryland gas sales tax, but when you adjust for inflation and look at the costs to drivers per mile, the taxes the government collects on gas will still remain very near their historical low.


Photo by johnwilliamsphd on Flickr.

We charge a gas tax, ostensibly to pay for transportation, that you pay based on how much driving you do. But because of increased fuel efficiency in cars and an unwillingness to tie the tax to inflation, the tax is not consistent per mile of driving every year.

In fact, after an initial increase in the gasoline tax's first years in Maryland, the tax was consistently above $0.03 per mile (all values in 2009 dollars) for 50 years. In the 1970's however, rapid increases in fuel efficiency and inflation rates cut that in half by 1981. It would never go above $0.025 again. This year, the tax is lower than it's been in 90 years: $0.01233.

But wait, there's more to this bargain: the federal gas tax this year is below a penny per mile for only the 8th time in history.

The proposed tax increase could "add 20 cents" to a gallon of gas, but that wouldn't even double the tax per mile of driving. In 2016, the year the tax would fully phase in, the tax per mile would be only $0.02113. This would be the highest rate since 1978, but well below the historic high of $0.04684 per mile. And also below the historic average of $0.02759. (Note: After publishing, numbers in this paragraph were modified to address a transcription error)

The chart below combines the Maryland state gas tax per year, the inflation rate according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and average US fleet efficiency per year from M. Sivak and B. Schoettle.

For future years it assumes a worst-case tax increase, expected inflation, and fuel efficiency increasing each year at the same pace as the preceding 10 years. The final assumption is likely a conservative estimate due to new CAFE standards set to go in effect by 2017. Furthermore, the tax would look even cheaper, compared to historic averages, for those who drive cars as opposed to light trucks because the fuel efficiency of cars has increased faster.


Maryland gas tax over time. Graphs by the author.

The federal tax is far below its average as well.


Federal gas tax over time.

So while the increase in the gasoline tax might seem large per gallon, the tax drivers pay per mile is still an incredible bargain compared to what drivers paid as recently as the 1990's. Claims that Maryland is "pricing middle-class families, and certainly the working-class poor, out of" the state are clearly overblown.

Budget


O'Malley unveils transportation funding plan

Yesterday, Maryland governor Martin O'Malley released his proposal to restructure Maryland's gas taxes to raise $3.4 billion for transportation over 5 years. The plan is superficially similar to the recent Virginia transportation funding bill, but improves upon it in several ways.


The Purple Line won't happen without more money. Image from Maryland MTA.

Maryland needs new revenue this year. Without it, the Purple Line, the Corridor Cities Transitway, and the Baltimore Red Line could all stop moving forward.

The key to the bill is a new 2% wholesale tax on gasoline. Wholesale taxes differ from normal gas taxes in that the gas distributor pays them rather than the consumer. The distributor then usually passes the tax along to consumers via higher prices.

The plan partially offsets this wholesale tax by reducing the normal gas tax, from 23.5¢ per gallon to 18.5¢ per gallon. But the plan would also index the new lower gas tax to inflation, so it would increase slightly each year.

Taken together, overall tax revenue from gas would go up by about 2¢ per gallon as soon as the bill takes effect. In 2014 the 2% wholesale tax will increase to 4%, increasing gas tax revenue by another 9¢

Maryland's bill versus Virginia's bill

Both bills reduce the normal gas tax but add new wholesale gas taxes. But while Virginia plans to reduce its total gas tax and subsidize highway building with revenue from other sources, Maryland's proposal sticks to the principle of transportation user fees.

Unlike Virginia's bill, Maryland's does not include new fees on hybrid car owners, increases to the sales tax, nor any taxes on land or hotel visits.

Like Virginia's bill, Maryland's specifies that if Congress allows states to raise internet sales taxes, Maryland will do so, and will allocate some of it to transportation. If Congress doesn't allow an internet sales tax by 2015 then Maryland's wholesale gas tax will increase from 4% to 6%.

One thing Maryland's proposed bill does that Virginia's does not is to index transit fares on MTA buses and trains to inflation. That will put more burden on transit riders, but will also provide MTA with a more predictable budget.

Since Maryland cannot impose rules on WMATA without agreement from DC and Virginia, WMATA fares will not be indexed to inflation.

Smart Growth advocates are generally more supportive of O'Malley's proposal than the Virginia bill. Montgomery County councilmember Hans Riemer says the bill "appears to be a very strong plan and just what Maryland needs to get big infrastructure projects going."

The bill will undoubtedly face stiff opposition from Maryland Republicans, so its passage is no sure thing. But O'Malley's proposal is co-sponsored by Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch, so it is clearly a serious initiative with a real chance of becoming law.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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