Increase the gasoline tax, institute a mileage fee or neither?

There’s been a lot of contentious debate along with swirling controversy surrounding a tax increase on gasoline. Nationally, the gas tax has been locked in at $0.184 (18.4 cents) per gallon since 1993 and it seems unlikely such will change anytime soon.

The problem with the gas tax going unchanged for that many years is that while the tax itself has remained constant, motor vehicle mileage/fuel economy ratings have been anything but (constant) – vehicles have become much more fuel efficient. And, what this has led to is decreased revenue generated from taxes on petroleum being available for various transportation-related projects, roadway and transit alike.

Also controversial is the idea of a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) fee, or dare I say “tax.” It isn’t so much the fee for miles driven that has caused a stir but how driving will be monitored – my understanding through global-positioning-satellite (GPS) system tracking.

A pilot program is about to launch in Oregon in July. Up to 5,000 volunteer motor vehicle owners are said to be taking part. It has been expressed that a 1.5-cents-per-mile fee ($0.015/mi) is being imposed. Based on a per-capita yearly average of 10,000 miles traveled, the money raised based on that average would amount to $150.00 for the year per driver. If all 5,000 drivers participating each drove 10,000 miles, then the total revenue raised comes to $1.5 million. Whatever capital is raised, all vehicle participants in the program will be contributing, regardless of how efficient vehicles are or what their fuel economy ratings happen to be.

Some aren’t too terribly excited, meanwhile, about the way the mileage will be tracked. For them, this is a privacy issue. It is my understanding that participants can rest assured knowing that the purpose of tracking is not to determine where drivers are driving to but rather to determine how much driving is being done, all done with the goal of raising VMT-generated funds.

As an aside, since the privacy issue has come up, is mileage monitoring by GPS capability even necessary? Well, is it?

It is here that I can’t help but be reminded of Smog Check. In California, smog testing for most motor vehicles is required every two years. Understanding this, it should not be too difficult to determine how many miles have been driven between smog checks. If, for example, a driver over a two-year time period drives 24,000 miles, then that’s a yearly average of 12,000. One of the limitations of using this method of determining distances traveled, is there is no way to know how many of those miles driven are done out of state, if any are. Regarding a proposed VMT scheme, unless the entire country is on board with this type of revenue-generating mechanism, than tracking yearly driving miles through smog-testing services, would not be suitable. (For much more about VMT fees and Oregon’s program, look here).

Moving on, if raising the gas tax or instituting a VMT fee is out of the question, then there are always the standby’s such as using a percentage of sales tax money for transportation needs. Then again, there are always tolling charges (i.e., road-usage charges). These, of course, would apply to road users only.

Regardless of what revenue-generating plan is adopted, there is always discussion – sometimes disagreement – over where monies raised should go.

Obviously existing roads need to be maintained, so there has to be money for that. Some roads could even be dismantled and money needs to be available for that as well. But, without fail, there always seems to be difference of opinion as to what constitutes proper use of funds – where they should go, in other words.

The way I look at it is like this: Just as dollars should go to upkeep to maintain the infrastructure being driven upon, money also should be going to repair the damage caused to the air related to travel. Whether that goes to help raise the fuel-efficiency/economy in the motor vehicle fleet overall, whether it’s put toward programs that entice people to drive less, and/or is used to help cover the costs of health care for all those whose lives have been adversely impacted on account of breathing in unhealthy air, regarding one and all, not only are such funds important but are necessary too.

– Alan Kandel