By on May 6, 2011

Hackles were raised here at TTAC and around the internet this week, when a draft version of the Transportation Opportunity Act circulated, tipping us to the administration’s preference for pay-per-mile road taxation. According to that version of the bill,

section [2218] would establish a Surface Transportation Revenue Alternatives Office within the Federal Highway Administration. The office would analyze the feasibility of implementing a national mileage-based user fee system that would convey prices to users to reflect system use and other travel externalities and serve as a funding source for surface transportation programs.

TTAC has been tracking and criticizing attempts at pay-per-mile taxation (both state and federal) since at least 2007, and because Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood had previously come out in support of pay-per-mile road taxes, we weren’t surprised by the TOA’s inclusion of a move towards pay-per-mile. And because the White House smacked LaHood down the last time he praised pay-per-mile, we aren’t all that surprised to find The Hill reporting that the White House is disavowing any interest in pay-per-mile. Spokesfolks explain:

This is not a bill supported by the administration. This was an early working draft proposal that was never formally circulated within the administration, does not take into account the advice of the president’s senior advisers, economic team or Cabinet officials, and does not represent the views of the president

So fear not, Americans opposed to a GPS tracker in every car: the White House has no interest in tracking your every movement. But until such time as a politician finds the cojones to address the highway fund’s shortfall by raising the gas tax, expect pay-per-mile to pop up again and again.

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35 Comments on “White House Disowns Pay-Per-Mile Tax Plan...”


  • avatar
    gslippy

    Similar hackles would be raised if taxpayers actually had to write a check for every tax they paid, instead of paying them through seamless payroll deductions and sales taxes.

    • 0 avatar
      M 1

      Replace “seamless” with “hidden” and I’m right there with you. Most people still get excited about their tax return. Few people understand the taxes they pay (to say nothing of basic finance or economics).

  • avatar
    tced2

    We already pay-per-mile tax through the fuel tax. The effective rate varies with the mpg of your vehicle – if you drive an economy vehicle then your taxes are lower. Conversely, if you drive a gas-guzzler, your taxes are higher.
    There is already a “miles driven recording device” – it’s called the odometer.

    • 0 avatar
      akitadog

      Raising the gas tax would essentially serve the same purpose as implementing a per-mile tax. It simply implements the per mile tax w/o introducing any more expenses, as it would then be slightly more expensive per mile to drive, no matter how efficient the vehicle.

      Of course, there’s a reason politicians want to add expense and bureaucracy, and that has to do with control/power, money (self-enriching, that is), or political payoff.

  • avatar
    aristurtle

    Nobody’s going to raise the gas tax when gas is $4/gallon.

    And it looks like the per-mile tax is a non-starter (good!).

    So either 1) highway fund shortfalls will be made up from the general fund (i.e. income tax), or 2) highway maintenance and construction will be “deferred”.

  • avatar
    photog02

    I’m all for a pay-per-mile tax provided the existing highway taxation scheme is tossed in the process. Right now, the kind of vehicle you drive affects the amount of tax you pay.

    A much more fair system in my mind would be paying per mile driven, even if there is some different tax rate per mile based on how “non-PC” your car is. It would be a pain to administer from the citizenry and the government sides, but it would be a lot more fair than our current nonsensical system. Plus, those vehicles that are the leading cause of wear on the roads can pay a higher share than my lightweight roadster that, in turn, will pay a higher share than a motorcycle.

    • 0 avatar
      aspade

      Paying per mile is far more capricious than paying per gallon.

      Urban congestion is where the road dollars go. That’s where heavy traffic wears out roads the fastest. Where new road expansions are needed because the existing roads are always jammed.

      And you can be a part of that gridlock for hours a day while covering barely 100 miles a week. The same as an hour and a half of rural commuting, or driving at off hours. You know, not contributing to the problem.

      The energy problem isn’t miles. It’s gallons. That what makes miles per gallon so bad. Ignoring gallons entirely makes it worse.

      • 0 avatar
        cackalacka

        “Right now, the kind of vehicle you drive affects the amount of tax you pay.”

        As well it should. I’m all for folks being able to drive what they can afford. Which isn’t happening right now.

        “Urban congestion is where the road dollars go. That’s where heavy traffic wears out roads the fastest. Where new road expansions are needed because the existing roads are always jammed.”

        Not necessarily. In my state, the taxpayers in Charlotte, the Triangle, and the Triad (aka the ‘urban’ areas) heavily subsidize the folks in the hills as well as the coasts. Granted, there isn’t a lot of non-tourism revenue being generated in those areas, and the ocean/mountains are a little more abusive to the infrastructure than soccer moms, bankers, and engineers… but… The state is considering outfitting a new bridge to the OBX at around 3/4 billion dollars. What kills me is that bridge will be payed for by N. Carolinians and will primarily serve Virginians. Toll booths are apparently out of the question.

  • avatar
    dex3703

    What exactly is the problem with paying for what you use? Just read the odometer every year or other year when you get your car inspected. The gas tax hasn’t been raised in ages, and is long out of sync with inflation or real costs. Saying you already pay a use tax with fuel sidesteps the issue.

    The American car fetish has done incredible and probably irreparable damage to our society. The least we can do is pay for it.

    • 0 avatar
      TEXN3

      Completely agree. I enjoy driving, whether a commute to work (Boise is not bad at all), a drive through the mountains, or a road trip. If the gas taxes are removed and we pay by the mile, I’m okay with that. People then start on the false pretense that it won’t help sell more fuel-efficient vehicles, which is totally bogus because you’re still paying for fuel by the gallon.

      If anything, it may get people to consider alternative modes of transportation, even carpooling (which I do) to lessen the miles traveled. A definite positive aspect out of that would be less miles on your vehicle, which would equate the a lower operating cost. People tend to forget their paying, per mile, to operate their vehicle. A use tax will help them realize this.

      • 0 avatar
        aspade

        If you pay by the mile you’ll be taken for a ride. Because living in the open west you cover a lot of miles to get anywhere.

        While urban drivers in places like Boston who get 20 billion dollar tunnel projects built for them will pay peanuts, because sitting in gridlock for hours doesn’t cover many miles.

      • 0 avatar
        TEXN3

        I am aware of that, we only have to cover alot of miles on long trips…350-500 miles to the next largest city. Recreational trips may be slightly affected, but the mountains and preferred camping areas aren’t too far away. Commuting is very minimal, especially with carpooling.

        As a land-use planner, I see the long-term positive effects of these changes as something other than raising revenue. I’m not partial to one party or another, I see it as a way to promote more efficient choices which will preserve some of the open space (as a westerner, I really like living in the open west but living in an established urban area and not in sprawl).

        In the end, I’m always finding ways to cut little bits out of my family’s monthly spending…I’m sure I’d find ways to do so even with a use tax, since it’s hard to press upon my wife that we don’t need to make seperate trips for everything so often. Think logically about where you’re going and it’ll save fuel, wear, and time.

    • 0 avatar
      aristurtle

      The American “car fetish”, as you call it, has created our modern society. The Ford Model T, and with it the affordable automobile in general, shaped the next hundred years of our development to such a massive extent that I can think of only a handful of other inventions that are in the same league. (Gutenberg and the printing press, for instance, or Tesla and alternating current transmission, or Shockley (et al) and the transistor.) To say the automobile has “damaged” our society is meaningless.

      Besides, using the fuel tax as a use tax for the roads encourages fuel efficiency; you like that, right? If it’s broken and out of date, fix it, don’t leave it there and add on something else.

      • 0 avatar
        geeber

        And society is better today than it was during the pre-automobile era.

        Prior to the Model T, 94 percent of all Americans never traveled more than 20 miles from their place of birth.

        Horses fouled the streets with manure, which poisoned water supplies and attracted disease-carrying flies.

        The manure on the streets was pounded into fine dust, which, during the spring and summer months, was carried into houses and apartments, as people had to keep their windows open in the days before air conditioning.

        During the summer months, horses regularly dropped dead in the streets from heat exhaustion and overwork.

        I’ll take the benefits and advances that widespread automobile use has made possible, thank you very much.

        Horses probably like it better, too.

      • 0 avatar
        TEXN3

        Fuel prices, even without taxes, would still encourage fuel efficiency. Why is the cost of fuel the only cost people take into account or complain about the most? Tire prices are rising due to barrel prices, people don’t complain as much. The price/mile of a larger vehicle will be more significant than a smaller vehicle, which is why I tend to refer to Edmunds TCO when looking at vehicles.

      • 0 avatar
        geeber

        People don’t complain as much about the price of tires because they don’t buy new tires once or twice a week. Most people can’t remember how much they paid for the last set of tires, because modern tires generally last a few years.

      • 0 avatar
        aristurtle

        Yeah, like geeber said, you’re assuming a level of rationality in the market that isn’t really in evidence. You look at Edmund’s TCO, but most people only notice “holy shit, it just cost me over a hundred bucks to fill this fucking gas tank”.

        In any case I see no reason to strap government-mandated GPS trackers to everyone’s car when fuel taxes approximate the same thing quite well.

        Of course, what’s even more likely is that the public will demand that the fuel tax get removed entirely once gasoline breaks $5/gallon, and then roadway construction and maintenance will either get paid out of income taxes (not really the worst outcome we could have). or get seriously cut back (and in places near me it’s already bad enough that I’m considering trading my Ninja in for a KLR). The irony being, I guess, that cars get worse mileage on poorly-maintained roads than they do on smoother ones.

  • avatar
    bwell

    They are going to keep throwing this putrid, stinking mess against the wall until it sticks. Or until it is rammed through in the first few days of Obama’s second term as an “emergency” measure.

    If we need a higher gas tax then it is the job of the politicians to convince the people why it is necessary. So far they have made zero attempt to do that. That is what leads me to believe that this is not about revenues. It is about control.

  • avatar
    340-4

    Well, as our country and states head towards insolvency, I fully expect the highway system to be sold off to private corporations, and then they’ll do this on their own and we’ll be ‘tolled’ instead of taxed.

  • avatar
    afflo

    If you want to tax drivers for wear to the roads, fuel isn’t the best source of funding (it doesn’t take into account the difference in weight and fuel efficiency) nor is annual mileage (again, it doesn’t take into account the difference in weight, driving style, etc.)

    If you want a tax based on the wear of tires grinding against the surface of the road, put a tax on tires.

    • 0 avatar

      Wow, that makes far too much sense.

    • 0 avatar
      TEXN3

      Except that tires vary so much in their wear and cost. And then you’ll have people purchase tires that do not neccesarily match their vehicle’s capabilities. Putting ultra-hard, ultra-cheap, yet high-mileage rated tires on luxury crossovers.

      At least wheel sizes may decrease.

    • 0 avatar

      Well, keep in mind that most of the wear and tear on roads isn’t caused by “tires” per se but by the immense mass of semis, expansion/contraction issues where it gets cold and careless plow drivers that gouge the daylights out of the roads in winter. (Doesn’t Cali have some concrete roads laid down in the 50s that are still in very good shape?)

      In general, however, the average car/driver does not cause much wear on the roads whatsoever.

  • avatar

    The administration’s denials look a little hollow when you consider that all of the dollar figures in the proposed legislation to the penny match the dollar figures in the administration’s OMB fiscal year 2012 proposed budget. That’s down to the sub sub account level. Regardless of what the White House says, this has the administration’s fingerprints all over it.

    Also, while there are privacy concerns, Sen. Conrad, who is the one pushing this in Congress, says openly that it’s about increasing revenue, i.e. raising taxes.

    There’s no way this can be implemented without raising privacy concerns. In order to split up taxes in terms of what state you are driving in, they’ll necessarily have to have access to your gps info.

  • avatar
    carguy

    They’re backing away from that faster than Republicans from Paul Ryans Medicare apocalypse. And no wonder – it would be political suicide.

  • avatar
    MikeAR

    Here’s the whole point, until spending is cut drastically, raising taxes will do no good at all. Until the system is changed so that almost no one is dependent upon the government, then do not slap productive taxpayers in the face and tell them that they ought to pay more. If we were all taxed 100% it still wouldn’t be enough.

    So cut spending by at least 50% and then talk about increasing taxes to pay down the debt. But increase them on everyone including those who don’t pay now.

  • avatar
    MarcKyle64

    I will be the first to disconnect my speedometer and bypass this puppy! I paid for the roads with gas taxes, don’t make me pay for them again or I’ll find politicians who WILL repeal this. It’s just another regressive tax on the working poor.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    “Urban congestion is where the road dollars go. That’s where heavy traffic wears out roads the fastest. Where new road expansions are needed because the existing roads are always jammed.”

    If you look at the data, the heavily populated states pay far more in taxes of all kinds than they get back in government spending, including for roads. It is actually rural America which gets massive road, bridge, water and even telephone subsidies from urbanites.

  • avatar
    Xeranar

    http://www.taxfoundation.org/research/topic/92.html

    That took me about 5 minutes of googling to find. I have books that state that but they’re harder to access since you would need an academic account. So to reiterate the point, urban society pays for everything while ex-urban and rural society gets all the benefits effectively. That is some what of an exaggeration but in tighter housing setups the roads may be wider but are far shorter compared to suburban and exurban drivers.

    This tax is setup if flat based upon mileage hurts suburbia in general but will probably be less than what the average soccer mom pays to run her Tahoe. The problem is that as our CAFE raises our consumption in theory will go down, I understand there will be an uptick in driving but there is a limitation of how far anybody will drive. If gas reaches 5 dollars a gallon the less than 50 cents we pay will be less than 10% of the overall price and arguably the gas companies will simply raise prices further to consume that difference.

    The only answer we have is to simply raise the CAFE requirement higher and higher and increase spending on public transit to make it a viable option for more people.

  • avatar
    MikeAR

    Does anyone honestly believe that the per gallon gas tax wlll go away if the mileage tax is instituted? That’s the goal to have both so that more mney can be diverted to other uses. Roads will continue to be a low priority with the people in charge now.

    • 0 avatar
      Xeranar

      Cynical much? As it stands in most states the problem with road pavement is the cost is a constant and gets shoved down the list because as a constant in the budget it is more likely to be adjusted as times get tough or good, As we keep cutting taxes on the wealthy and corporations naturally roads are going to suffer. The alternative is to go to an all-toll system that many libertarians advocate or charge more to commercial vehicles.

      I personally advocate a constitutional amendment that implements a tax for infrastructure. That way we know that X amount of all taxes will go to infrastructure since it is a given fact that a good infrastructure gives way to a better society.

  • avatar

    Totally agree with MikeAR. If we’re going to institute a toll system in place of the Federal Highway System, I want to see an end to the Federal Fuel Tax.

    I live just north of downtown Dallas and use the North Dallas Tollway quite frequently. Compared to I-35, the Tollway’s roads are immaculate, traffic flows much better, accidents/obstructions are dealt with very quickly and the tolls are paid via TollTag or via a bill mailed to the vehicle’s owner (identified by license plate).

    I’d first start the transition in major cities with the “beltway” highway. (Example: Transition I-35 within the 635 Loop to toll, leaving the Loop as a non-toll alternative) The key goal should be to restore the highway infrastructure back to its 1950’s zenith.

    As for increases in trucking costs, this is where rail is best suited. Transition from one transit system to another will cause short term unemployment, but the railroads will need to increase their hiring for maintenance, cargo management and other positions.

  • avatar
    M 1

    Of course they denied it.

    You can’t run around tipping your hand when The Man is working the Campaign Trail!

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