he White House is disowning a proposal in one of its draft transportation bills that would begin moving the U.S. toward taxing drivers based on the number of miles they drive. The undated draft, obtained by Transportation Weekly, would set up an agency in the Transportation Department to study and start pilot programs for a national vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax, to pay for roads and bridges. While the exact details of the fledgling plan remain vague, a VMT tax was recently endorsed by the Congressional Budget Office, which suggested installing devices on cars to track the number of miles driven. Is this a good idea?
Somebody has to pay for our highways: The shortfall in federal transportation funds isn't a new problem, says Ryan Holleywell at Governing. And switching from a gas tax to a VMT tax isn't a new solution: "Just about every transportation expert" thinks it's the right move. The gas tax (18.4 cents per gallon) hasn't been raised since 1993, and with more and more fuel-efficient cars on the road, the government's revenue problem is only getting worse.
"Could Obama ditch the gas tax?"
The Obama team is making this way too complicated: "Why not just increase the gas tax?" asks Rick Ferri at Forbes. With gas at $4 a gallon, I can see why that's politically unpalatable, but at least it's simple and doesn't require huge new investments. On the other hand, the "VMT should be called the Rube Goldberg Gas Tax because... the way it collects revenue is extremely complex, costly, and cumbersome."
"The Rube Goldberg gas tax"
Why punish the Prius owners? Yes, raising the gas tax is "a political non-starter, so a new pay-per-mile method appears to be one scenario that would keep the highway funds flowing," says Bengt Halvorson at The Car Connection. But switching to a VMT isn't exactly fair, either. Owners of hybrids and electrics should help pay for the upkeep of highways and bridges, too, but heavier, less fuel-efficient vehicles should pay more, because they put more wear on roads.
"Obama: Pay as you drive, instead of gas tax?"
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