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How to Fix the Transportation Crisis (But You Won’t Like It)

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Stateline, the daily news service of the Pew Charitable Trust that covers state government, writes about the possibility of a “vehicle miles traveled” tax:

Two years from now, thousands of Oregon drivers could get a taste of what the future may hold for the rest of us: They will pay taxes not on the amount of gasoline their cars burn, but on the number of miles they drive.

The move to a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax, if it happens, is still a long way off in most corners of the country. But that is why transportation experts and elected leaders are so interested in seeing whether Oregon can make it work.

“Per-mile charges are the most high-profile and discussed possible alternative to the gas tax,” said Jaime Rall, a transportation policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures. “There’s no question about it: States want to know if this is going to be a viable way to fund transportation into the future.” States are looking for an alternative to the gas tax, because the per-gallon taxes often do not keep up with inflation, and they are bringing in less money as cars become  more fuel-efficient.

Oregon’s volunteer program is slated to begin in 2015. Cars will be equipped with mileage meters that will track how far and where the vehicle has traveled. Drivers will still pay for gas bought at the pump, minus the mileage tax.

Texas is one of a number of states that has looked into instituting mileage taxes. I suspect that there will be a lot of resistance to the idea here. This is a libertarian state, and I doubt that drivers will like the idea of having a GPS tracker in their car that will allow TxDOT to know where they have been. If this proposal does become law, every road will be, in effect, a toll road. Drivers won’t like that either. But the current meltdown over transportation leave little doubt that something will have to be done if the gridlock on our highways is going to be broken.

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For extra measure, here’s a criticsim of the legislation from the website Truckers Report:

The Oregon State Legislature has just passed a bill that allows per-mile taxation on vehicles using any road in the state. While the bill currently says the per-mile taxation is optional and it has not been approved for use with heavy commercial vehicles, this is certainly a step in a frightening direction. Get ready for a huge bump in taxes and a truly frightening infringement of privacy. The idea of a per-mile tax is something that has been getting tossed around a lot lately as state DOTs are looking for ways to fill massive holes in their operating budgets caused by maintaining a rapidly aging road system. In some states, it is being considered in addition to or as a replacement to fuel tax since today’s vehicles are using less fuel, but causing the same amount of wear and tear on the roads. For truckers who drive rigs that commonly get less than 10mpg, it seems that a per-mile tax would cost less than a fuel tax in the long run. But it doesn’t.

Let’s take Oregon as an example. The state fuel tax in Oregon is currently $0.30 per gallon. If a truck gets 10mpg, that means the driver ends up paying $0.03 per mile. The per-mile tax that Oregon is proposing would charge drivers $0.015 per mile – half of what drivers are paying with the current fuel tax setup. This makes it seem like a great deal for truckers, but there are several factors that are not being taken into consideration here. First, truckers may not have to pay fuel tax in Oregon, but most truckers don’t stay confined to only one state. Odds are, that trucker has already fueled up in a neighboring state, say California, and has already paid the $0.72 per gallon fuel tax there before driving into Oregon where they’re now being taxed again for every mile they drive. That comes out to costing $0.87 per gallon in taxes alone!

This doesn’t even take into consideration the idea that trucks and other heavy vehicles might be taxed at a higher rate per mile due to their increased impact on the wear and tear of the state’s roads. According to a report released back in January by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, truckers would be expected to pay anywhere from $.03 to $.08 cents per mile, a far cry from the $.015 that light vehicles will be paying on Oregon. The other major issues with per-mile taxation are the equipment that it requires and the privacy concerns brought on by that equipment. Every truck would need to have an always-on GPS system tied to the truck’s engine. From the time the engine goes on at the beginning of your day to the time it shuts off at the end it would be transmitting your exact position – along with the exact position of every other motoring citizen in the country – to a single government agency.

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  • Gerald Trask

    It has become obvious that Tim Thomas is a liberal “tax and spend” democrat who most likely fills his pockets at tax payers expense

    • You heard it here first – paying for what you use and long-term fiscal responsibility are “tax and spend” liberalism.