Friday, February 20, 2009

Vehicle Miles Traveled Tax

Man there was quite the firestorm on the blogs today about the idea floated on a VMT tax by Secretary LaHood. Apparently it was such a bad idea to the Obama administration that they smacked down the idea later in the day. While that was the political thing to do, I'm not sure it was the smart thing to do. I'd like to see more studies on it before we come with a verdict.

Lets take a look at all the comments we saw today from progressives on a number of different blogs...

1. It will hurt the poor
2. It will cost a lot
3. It invades my privacy
4. It was proposed by a Republican
5. Why not just raise the gas tax?
6. Why not have a complicated weight and energy efficiency tax
7. Why do we even need a GPS collector instead of just reading odometers
8. It's hard for shift workers to take transit
9. Heavy trucks do more damage
10. My Prius driving will be punished
11. Senators will vote no because they are from low density states
12. If fuel efficiency goes to zero where does money for roads come from?
13. How about better road surfaces?
14. We'll need an electricity tax in ten years
15. We're not taxing vegetable oil for carbon
16. The only house I could afford was on the periphery
17. I don't want to pay anymore money for highways
18. What do miles driven have to do with anything?
19. A mileage tax doesn't distinguish between a hybrid and a hummer
20. People in Idaho live far away from where they work
21. I prefer to pay the traditional way, gas tax
22. Cheap gas is a birthright
23. It might encourage people to live closer to work
24. Miles tax is a GOP plan to save the gas guzzler
25. I don't want to punish people who live in rural areas
26. It's a trucking industry ploy to keep freight off the rails
27. I have a libertarian streak so i don't like it

Honestly, to me a lot of these are silly, but I thought you all would get a small chuckle.

The reasons for a mileage tax would be to push people into really thinking about how far away from work and other amenities they are living. They are already paying the price for their decisions given that people in location efficient areas can spend very little on transportation costs while folks in the worst sprawl spend up to 25% or more, but with a mileage tax, they'll be thinking about it even more. As that TXDOT study said (it's subsequently been taken off their site), a heavily traveled road in Houston would need $2.22 a gallon in taxes to actually pay for it. Many of the arguments for an increased gas tax would never likely get up that high, and that is actually the low end of what is really needed according to TXDOT, and that is just for federal and state roads, not bike lanes, transit and sidewalks/city streets.

I'm not saying that we don't need to make people pay for the negative externalities of the weight of thier vehicle or the gasoline they guzzle, but people need to start connecting the dots on housing and transportation costs that are killing family budgets and they lifestyles and driving patterns that lead to them. I'm not going to toss the mileage fee out yet. It might be a good idea or a bad idea. Let's just wait and see when the trials in Oregon and other places are completed instead of just throwing it out right away. There are plenty of arguments each way, I look forward to seeing them all.


Peter said...

i disagree with Eschaton/Atrios on a lot of things, but on some stuff he's able to point out the obvious in very easy-to-digest ways -- here's one.

and as he states, he's been saying it for a while. and i have to admit, it seems very obvious to me, too. it doesn't require too much thought -- there's just nothing much there other than lame and costly idea with virtually no upside.

Duncan Watson said...

The big problem with such a proposal is the addiction to shiny technical geegaws like GPS. There are a ton off issues with it. Go instead with a odometer reading once per year and charge based on weight class per mile driven.

It is much cheaper and easier to administer. Odometers are already difficult to tamper with and penalties exist for those who do.

You avoid pissing off the ACLU, EPIC and anyone with privacy issues and don't split the potential support base by adding too much complexity.

Adam said...

As much as I would like to see cars get taxed, taxed, taxed into oblivion, it's not only unfeasible, but undesirable as well. We can't forget about people who work on farms, how they deliver their goods and how people get around in the country.

And part of the reason we support TOD, urban boundaries, congestion pricing, and mass transit and all of that is so we can preserve the beauty of the countryside. I think there should be high gas taxes, not taxes on how much you drive, especially because there are jobs that rely on driving that even us transit advocates can't take away.

Robert said...

I do believe that we should make driving as expensive as possible, basically. However, I also believe that it should be more expensive to those that cause the most burden.

Although some would suggest that the fact that any given car is on the road is the reason that we have such a car-centric infrastructure that often precludes pedestrians and transit users, it is clear to me that the damage to the environment and to existing infrastructure caused by large trucks and SUVs merits fees per mile greater than those of drivers in small passenger cars.

Robert said...

Duncan -- it cannot just be a odometer reading. Why should I pay road taxes to California, with which my car is registered, when I take a trip to Colorado?

In fact, the gas tax takes care of so many problems. It provides revenue to the area where the car is driving and is progressive relative to the size of the vehicle, which is correlated with the amount of funding required for maintenance.

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

All good points. I would say that just like today, you can have a farm truck/rural exemptions. There has to be a tradeoff there but it exists already.

I do agree that no one really needs GPS for this. Though if it is going to be used on a federal level, if you don't have GPS tracking on which type of road you're on and if you take surface streets for most of your miles, you're going to be paying for infrastructure you don't use, just like today with the gas tax where people in the suburbs who use state roads and highways get subsidized by those who stay on city surface streets.

Anyways, more to think about...

Anonymous said...

Equally funny is how them blogs are being more receptive to LaHood after all.

Adam said...

Well, some of the "Media Distancia" trains would probably stop in smaller cities.

Alon Levy said...

Another problem with a mileage tax is that pollution is proportional to gas consumption rather than distance driven. A mileage tax is essentially a subsidy for SUV drivers to be paid by people who drive hybrids. Reducing oil consumption is about both reducing VMT and increasing fuel efficiency. A gas tax naturally achieves both; a mileage tax only achieves one, and for higher cost.

Anonymous said...

I'm politically independent and really have no ax to grind. Or perhaps I have axes to grind with both parties, I haven't decided.

I'm really tickled at the outrage conservatives express over this proposal. If you look at any other aspect of our society, conservatives believe in pay-as-you-go and those who use a certain service should pay for it. They advocate abolishing public schools and forcing parents to pay for private schools. They want to privatize parks so people would have to pay to go use the swingsets or toss a football. But driving? Oh dear no, that's SACRED!

Big Brother? We already have invited Big Brother into our lives. Do you carry a cell phone? "They" know where you are. Using a GPS to track mileage isn't going to make things worse for you. And besides, you don't have an expectation of privacy outside of your home. Funny, same-sex couples have no "right to privacy" at home or women at the doctor's office, but out on a public road people do?

I don't buy the argument it lets Hummer drivers off the hook because different vehicles could be charged differently.

I like the proposal, but I know it'll never happen. I think Obama had LaHood float it just to gauge the response.

Imee said...

As much as I would like to embrace change, a "vehicle miles traveled tax" is pretty odd to me. Normal gas tax is far more efficient in my opinion. A VMT tax would just confuse people even more than they are now.