Posted by Thomas Nephew on February 23rd, 2009
The Washington Post’s lead editorial today is “Mr. Lahood’s Good Idea” — a followup to last week’s news that Transportation Secretary Lahood discussed a “mileage tax” in an AP interview as a new means of paying for the country’s transportation system. The Obama administration rather firmly shot down the idea: “It is not and will not be the policy of the Obama administration,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said when asked at his daily briefing about LaHood’s remarks, which were made in an interview with the Associated Press.
The Post’s editorial board is concerned that the Obama administration was too hasty:
As automobiles become more efficient and make use of new fuels, the gas tax — which, we note here for the umpteenth time, should be raised — will be less effective in capturing revenue. Mr. LaHood’s comments reflected what many transportation experts and economists are coming to believe: A tax on vehicle miles traveled, or VMTs, is the most promising, fairest, most environmentally responsible replacement for the gas tax.
It’s hard to figure how any replacement of a gasoline tax would be environmentally responsible, but a tax on VMT — the same whether you’re driving a Hummer or a smart car — would be among the least attractive options, it seems to me. It’s also par for the Post in disingenuousness to “note for the umpteenth time” that gas taxes should be raised …when Lahood himself ruled that out in the very same interview. You’d think that might have been their topic du jour if they actually gave a hoot.
But for me, the real kicker is how the tax could be levied:
Most proposals require a GPS-like “mileage-counter” to be installed in vehicles. When drivers stop to fill up, a tax based on the miles they’ve driven would be added to their bill in place of a gas tax. The tax rate could be adjusted based on whether someone was driving in rush hour or off-peak times, on clogged freeways or less busy roads. [...]
Some opponents fear that the government could use the mileage counters to monitor drivers.
As Dr. Watson is rumored to have said from time to time: no sh*t, Sherlock. Lahood and the Post’s brain wave is based on a 2007 feasibility study done in Oregon at the behest of Democratic governor Ted Kulongoski. The point of the GPS system (as opposed to just reading the car’s odometer in some fashion) is mainly to help tell vehicle miles traveled in Oregon from those traveled elsewhere, but determining the particular roads traveled (for rate adjustment purposes) could be determined with the same technology.
Now it appears to be true that the on-board device designed for the purpose really only stores the “Oregon miles traveled.” But no self-respecting surveillance system would focus at that end of the transaction anyway. As the Seattle Times’s Eric Pryne reported in 2004:
Such assurances don’t satisfy David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C. Oregon’s prototype probably presents little threat to privacy, he says — but government officials almost certainly would want something more. The state would need a record of a car’s movements to document the mileage-tax assessment if someone contested it, Sobel says: “Just from a due-process perspective, there will be pressure to retain data.“
And thanks to our ever expanding views of what the federal government is entitled to secretly acquire and peruse, those data might as well then be emailed directly to the Department of Homeland Security or the FBI, to be easily matched up with credit card, financial, DMV, and/or any other data these agencies get their hands on for whatever flimsy reason.
Is there a problem to be solved? Sure; even if you’re a vigorous advocate of mass transit, you may well agree that we have to keep a lot of major, existing roads in good repair — and apparently the federal Highway Trust Fund piggy bank for that is running dry. But if so, there are a number of non-surveillance based solutions: increase the tax base for the fund, stop building new roads and think hard about which existing ones to prioritize, access other taxes, or — I’ve got it! — set up something I’m going to call “toll booths”, an admittedly science-fictiony idea where people would stop and pay for the wear and tear they cause to the road they’re on.
The more I look around, the more keeping up with the million and three nitwit creeping surveillance ideas out there is looking like a full time job. One advantage I’ll have, though, is that the Washington Post’s editorial board is sure to be touting the craziest ones in lead editorials.
EDIT, 2/26: “you may well agree” for the presumptuous “if you’re honest with yourself you know”