a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

How not to pay for a transportation system

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”

5 Responses to “How not to pay for a transportation system”

  1. Imee Says:

    I’m one of those who believe that the Obama administration was indeed hasty in rejecting the VMT tax idea. I expected more from them, thinking they were more open-minded than this. I’m not 100% agreeing on VMT taxes but I think it has promise, I really do.

  2. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Thanks for your comment. I don’t ordinarily let comments through with links back to a business, and nearly put this one on the spam pile. But in this case your comment was on point, and the business (“Cash for Clunkers”) is arguably related to the post topic — taking old cars off the highways is one way of improving the overall MPG and (all else remaining equal) reducing pollution.

  3. David Fleck Says:

    Most of the comments on the various articles you’ve linked to raise the same (unanswered) questions that occur to me: Why on earth would you replace a simple, low-tech scheme (taxing gasoline purchases) with a byzantine, Rube Goldberg-esque surrogate (tracking your mileage, and where you’ve been so we can refund your out-of-state driving)? Why replace a tax that encourages fuel conservation and efficient vehicles with one that penalizes those things? Why not just raise the damned gasoline tax, if it’s not adequate to fund road maintenance?

    Sometimes I grow alarmed at the state of affairs in my former place of residence.

  4. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Hi David! Didn’t know (or maybe I forgot) that you used to live here in the DC area.

    I agree that it’s a Rube Goldberg scheme; sometimes I wonder if that’s the attraction — another system to sell, another system to manage. A question that also occurs to me is why (or if) Oregon voters would suddenly get all relaxed and docile about this tax vs. a gas tax. With a gas tax, at least your movements remain opaque to the government; with a VMT tax they don’t; the total amount you’re likely to be taxed, on average and in the long run, the same amount either way — some function of (a) what you’ll put up with and (b) what is needed to keep roads functional.

    I suppose the key points for Gov. Kulongoski et al above are (a) that 75-99% of people don’t think “long run” and (b) they probably still don’t care very much about the possibility of government surveillance, either because they just don’t care, or because they buy the “look Ma, nothing in the on-board device” red herring.

    PS: congrats on your “Ranting Kid“! As we both know, what the world needs is more opinionated bloggers; you and Moira have done your part. Seriously, though, it’s nice to see that there are kids who care about the world and issues around them… regardless of whether I agree with all of what they say. (So help me God.) Keep it up, RK.

  5. David Fleck Says:

    Thomas- as it happens, I count both Oregon and the D.C. area (Rockville/Bethesda) as places I used to live.

    Maybe there’s less psychological resistance to two smaller taxes than to one bigger tax. I don’t think it would make a difference to me, but then there are a lot of things most people don’t agree with me on.

    Re: Ranting Kid – thanks; I’ll pass along your compliments. Go over and argue with her if you get a chance. It’ll help sharpen her brain.

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