Gas Tax versus Per Mile Tax

I got NPR’d this morning. That’s a saying my wife and I have for those times where you sit in your car and listen to the end of the NPR story you’re listening to, even though you’re already where you need to be. It’s not an infrequent thing to have happen to me—I appreciate good journalism.

This morning, I sat in my garage, with the engine off, and listened to an NPR story about how Oregon and Washington are testing a new program which will replace the existing gas tax with either a per-mile-driven tax, or a flat fee. I’ve been saying for years that states will need to do this, for the simple fact that the fuel economy of vehicles has soared in the last ten years, and gas taxes, based on the number of gallons purchased, have fallen. But transportation costs have not remained flat—they’ve skyrocketed because of rising costs for regular maintenance, and because of and aging infrastructure that needs to be replaced before more catastrophic failures cost lives and billions in productivity losses.

The program being tested in Oregon equips vehicles with GPS receivers which record how many miles you drive each month on federal, state, county, city and private roads, and sends you a bill at the end of the month. Miles driven out of state would not be on your bill. The current rate per mile is about $0.015. For the woman they interviewed (who is a volunteer and an Oregon state employee), the cost was about $5 for December—almost exactly what she paid in gas taxes.Oregon is considering implementing the program statewide in 2014 for new vehicles which exceed 55 mpg—basically the hybrids and electric vehicles, which use the roads but pay little to nothing in gas tax. I think that’s fair, but I think it should also include high-weight vehicles, like dump-trucks that do a disproportionate amount of damage to roads compared to passenger vehicles.

The primary argument against implementing this system is, as one Republican State Senator from Washington said, “It’s like having Big Brother riding along in the car with you.” Yes, people will be worried that the government is spying on you. There are ways to prevent that—the GPS device should be a receiver only, tracking the number of miles driven on each type of road, not which roads / routes / destinations. The raw data should be put into “the cloud” for independent third party inspection for privacy issues and for auditing. The threat of random audits of the equipment on the vehicles by third parties (like the ACLU) would dissuade all but the most suicidal governments from implementing any type of Big Brother tracking. And, of course, there is always the flat fee option. Choose which one you are more comfortable with.

Something like this has to be implemented to keep the nation’s infrastructure running. You can’t expect to continually slash revenue from transportation funding, and expect the same level of safety and smooth ride forever. And as good as increased fuel economy has been for the environment, it is a cut to transportation funding. Something has to replace it.

It’ll be difficult to get these tax changes through Oregon and Washington legislatures because, as the story pointed out, both states are supermajority states, which says that any new taxes or tax increases must get a 2/3 majority (thanks Tim Eyman, you dumbass). But something like this has to happen, or it won’t be long before our bridges and overpasses begin falling with some regularity.

The other option is to reroute funding from other government programs to fund transportation. I say we start with the defense industry. Cut a billion here, and a billion there, and put those engineers who are currently building the next bomber or carrier to work building new high-speed rail networks or new bridges or new schools, and everybody is happy. And no one has to be worried about being tracked by Big Brother. Besides, if good infrastructure isn’t a national security issue, then I don’t know what is.

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