Saturday, August 4, 2012

Killing the Gas Tax: Why, Exactly?

Streetsblog DC has a post on Oregon's experimentation with a vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT) tax. Oregonian Representative Earl Blumenauer speaks with pride about the fact that Oregon intends to be the first state to rid itself of the gas tax. But is the reasoning behind moving to a VMT tax sound? I'm skeptical.

The stated reason for exploring a VMT tax is the fact that Oregon's state gas tax is insufficient to maintain the state's transportation infrastructure, especially with recent trends in fuel-efficient hybrids and electric vehicles. But the article goes on to say that the VMT tax would "probably never include all vehicles" because "[v]ehicles below the mid-point, about 20 miles per gallon, are already paying a load of gas tax." Wait, what? So what you're saying is that you want to pay to maintain your state's transportation infrastructure by implementing a special tax which would only be applied to fuel-efficient cars? So you want to soak the folks who are conscientious enough to drive more efficient vehicles?

Add to that the fact that there are serious technological, bureaucratic and civil-liberties concerns related to the implementation of a VMT tax. Most implementations will rely on some sort of GPS-based box in the car that would tally up mileage. The Oregon pilot will apparently be handing the tracking function over to a private contractor-- because that's just what we need, a profit-driven company with access to data on our every move. I can't imagine any way that could go wrong.

Finally, it seems to me that this is a solution in search of a problem. We already have a transportation funding mechanism that charges people in proportion to the amount of driving they do, and has the side benefit of making heavier and more inefficient vehicles pay more while rewarding efficiency. It also has no tracking component, and the cost is paid in small amounts bundled into a larger transaction, lessening citizen resentment. It's called the gas tax. It's actually a fantastic funding and incentive mechanism for a society facing climate change-- it's literally a direct carbon tax. You buy carbon to burn, you pay taxes on it. The only problem with the gas tax is that it's presently far too low.*

VMT taxes are a complex and worrying workaround for a problem that has already been solved. The only reason anyone's talking about them is because it's politically unpopular to raise the gas tax. But here's the thing-- fundamentally, what's politically unpopular is making driving expensive, not any particular means of doing so. Tolls, registration fee hikes, congestion charges, parking meter rate raises, and likely VMT will all be unpopular, because our society has become accustomed to super-cheap automobility. Raising the gas tax will likely be less unpopular than charging people more to drive by tracking their daily movements with GPS, and it will do more to push people towards fuel efficiency. VMT is unnecessary, it's complex, and it has worrying implications. Let's stop wasting time on it and get to building the political will to raise the gas tax.

*Gas taxes also won't work for electric vehicles, but truthfully, I don't see too many electric vehicles on the roads right now. Perhaps a simple, odometer-based VMT charge would be the best solution down the road, but right now, let's let the Leaf-driving greenies enjoy the savings. We might also want to consider a small tax on electricity, a portion of which could be dedicated to transportation.


DJB said...

VMT taxes attack traffic congestion and promote active transportation more directly than gas taxes do. Since you can respond to higher gas taxes in the long run with more efficient vehicles, higher gas taxes are really more about using less gas than they are about driving less. I think the best taxing system would involve taxing the fuel and taxing based on distance driven, since we need to both use less gas and drive less, regardless of the fuel.

The tracking argument is interesting, but honestly, anyone who carries a cell phone can be tracked anyway, so I don't know if it's really a loss of privacy.

JN said...

I think that, since we're unlikely to be able to ban cars any time soon, we ought to be rewarding people who make the investment in more fuel-efficient vehicles. They're at least helping out with the global warming problem. This is the precise opposite of what the Oregon VMT pilot is doing by applying the VMT only to efficient cars.

I also think that there are different needs and benefits to getting people out of their cars. Obviously, anyone willing to dump their car is a step in the environmentally right direction, but really, most of the people who have a realistic choice in the matter are going to be city dwellers. Congestion charges and location-based registration taxes might be a better tool to make keeping a car and driving it in the city more expensive, without impacting rural residents who really don't have a better option. (Keeping those revenues local would also give cities a revenue stream that doesn't have to go through the rural-biased federal and state governments.)