Like a hungry lion prowling for prey, cash-poor and revenue-hungry state governments are now looking at a new tax — on how many miles you drive.
The push comes as the federal government’s Highway Trust Fund, financed with taxes Americans pay at the gas pump, is broke. We’re not buying as much gas as we used to: Cars are getting many more miles to the gallon; and the federal tax of 18.4 cents per gallon hasn’t gone up in 20 years. Politicians are loath to raise the tax even one penny when gas prices are high, so they’re looking elsewhere to raise revenue — your mileage.
Evan Halper reports for the Los Angeles Times, Oct. 26, 2013, that as America’s road planners struggle to find the cash to mend a crumbling highway system, many are beginning to see a solution in a little black box that fits neatly by the dashboard of your car.
The devices, which track every mile a motorist drives and transmit that information to bureaucrats, are at the center of a controversial attempt in Washington and state planning offices to overhaul the outdated system for funding America’s major roads.
Wonks call it a mileage-based user fee. The tax has made unlikely allies on both sides. Among the mileage-tax advocates are:
- Urban liberals and environmentalists (two overlapping groups), who see the mileage taxes as a way to change driving patterns in ways that could help reduce congestion and greenhouse gases.
- Libertarians and free marketeers at the Reason Foundation. Its vice president of policy Adrian Moore said, “This is not just a tax going into a black hole. People are paying more directly into what they are getting.”
- Two former U.S. Transportation secretaries, who in a 2011 report urged Congress to move in the pay-per-mile direction.
- Republican Congressman Bill Shuster (Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, who said he sees the tax as the most viable long-term alternative.
- The U.S. Senate approved a $90-million pilot project last year that would have involved about 10,000 cars.
Opponents of the mileage-tax include:
- The House GOP leaders, who killed the Senate pilot project proposal, acting on concerns of rural lawmakers representing constituents whose daily lives often involve logging lots of miles to get to work or into town.
- The Tea Party.
- The American Civil Liberties Union is troubled by violations of our privacy because the same black box that tracks your mileage also tracks when and where you drive. The ACLU of Nevada warns on its website: “It would be fairly easy to turn these devices into full-fledged tracking devices…. There is no need to build an enormous, unwieldy technological infrastructure that will inevitably be expanded to keep records of individuals’ everyday comings and goings.”
While Congress can’t agree on whether to proceed, several states and cities are not waiting and are moving ahead on their own:
The state of Oregon is the most eager for the mileage tax and is enlisting 5,000 drivers in the country’s biggest experiment. Those drivers will soon pay the mileage fees instead of gas taxes to the state.
Nevada has already completed a pilot in which about 50 volunteers’ cars recently were equipped with the black boxes. But Nevada drivers are uneasy about the government being able to monitor their every move. “Concerns about Big Brother and those sorts of things were a major problem,” said Alauddin Khan, who directs strategic and performance management at the Nevada Department of Transportation. “It was not something people wanted.”
California planners are looking to the system as they devise strategies to meet the goals laid out in the state’s ambitious global warming laws. Southern California Assn. of Governments is planning for the state to start tracking miles driven by every California motorist by 2025. The Association’s executive director Hasan Ikhrata said, “This really is a must for our nation. It is not a matter of something we might choose to do. There is going to be a change in how we pay these taxes. The technology is there to do it.”
Minnesota recently put tracking devices on 500 cars to test out a pay-by-mile system. University of Minnesota transportation policy expert Lee Munnich said, “The gas tax is just not sustainable. This works out as the most logical alternative over the long term.”
5. New York City is looking into one.
6. Illinois is trying the mileage tax on a limited basis with trucks.
7. The I-95 Coalition, which includes 17 state transportation departments along the Eastern Seaboard (including Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Florida), is studying how they could go about implementing the mileage tax.
Obviously, a mileage tax that doesn’t involve tracking drivers’ speed and location would be more palatable.
A small California startup called True Mileage had devices that appeal to highway planners because they don’t use GPS and deliver a limited amount of information, uploaded periodically by modem. True Mileage’s chief executive Ryan Morrison says, “People will be more willing to do this if you do not track their speed and you do not track their location. There have been some big mistakes in some of these state pilot programs. There are a lot less expensive and less intrusive ways to do this.”
In Oregon, planners are experimenting with giving drivers different choices. They can choose a device with or without GPS. Or they can choose not to have a device at all, opting instead to pay a flat fee based on the average number of miles driven by all state residents.
Other places are hoping to sell the concept to a wary public by having the devices do more, not less. In New York City, transportation officials are seeking to develop a taxing device that would also be equipped to pay parking meter fees, provide “pay-as-you-drive” insurance, and create a pool of real-time speed data from other drivers that motorists could use to avoid traffic. “Motorists would be attracted to participate … because of the value of the benefits it offers to them,” says a city planning document.
Meanwhile, thousands of motorists, aka sheeple, have already taken the black boxes, some of which have GPS monitoring, for a test drive.
Some transportation planners, though, wonder if all the talk about paying by the mile is just a giant distraction. At the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in the San Francisco Bay Area, officials say Congress could very simply deal with the bankrupt Highway Trust Fund by raising gas taxes. An extra one-time or annual levy could be imposed on drivers of hybrids and others whose vehicles don’t use much gas, so they pay their fair share.
Randy Rentschler, the commission’s director of legislation and public affairs, said, “If we do this [mileage tax], hundreds of millions of drivers will be concerned about their privacy and a host of other things. There is no need for radical surgery when all you need to do is take an aspirin [increase gas taxes].”