Over the last few years, we’ve seen Democrats raise the idea of adding a new revenue source to supplement the gas tax, as revenues have declined from this stream due to increased fuel efficiency thanks to mandates to that effect imposed by Congress. One bad idea that never seems to die is a mileage tax, which would force Americans to track their travel — or have government do it for them. That idea got shelved along with the Democratic House majority in 2011, but now it’s crept across the aisle (via Instapundit):

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster said he favors user fees including a vehicle miles tax to pay for a long-term U.S. highway bill that would extend for at least five years.

Shuster rejected the idea of raising the nation’s 18.4 cents-per-gallon gasoline tax, now the primary method of paying for road, bridge and mass transit projects. Besides a mileage tax, he said other funding methods include higher taxes on energy exploration and bringing back corporate profits earned overseas.

Well, that’s just a cornucopia of bad ideas, isn’t it? Higher energy taxes in a stagnant economy disincentivizes investment and risk by adding cost, and it applies direct inflationary pressure to retail goods, especially produce. Taxing funds that corporations keep offshore is part of why those funds are offshore in the first place — a badly contructed corporate-tax system that puts American corporations at a competitive disadvantage. One thing that Transportation could do is strip out all of the pork-barrel projects that get written into the bill, which is usually among the porkiest of all appropriations from Congress. Maybe that extra cash can keep them busy for a while.  Even better yet, they could stop spending billions of dollars for high-speed rail in systems that don’t come close to crossing state lines, and let the states build their own toy choo-choo systems and deal with the massive bankruptcies that follow.

But of all the dumb ideas in that effort, the mileage tax is the worst. A gas tax is a usage tax, one that doesn’t require Americans to keep special records or for government to snoop into their driving habits. As I wrote almost three years ago, this is an entrée to massive invasions of privacy and IRS harassment:

One shudders to think what happens when the IRS gets your annual mileage wrong and a taxpayer disputes the record.  Where were you on the night of April 19th, Canarsie?  We show you drove 6.3 miles to Bada-Bing Strip Club in New Jersey. Even if exact destinations aren’t recorded (earlier suggestions were to use GPS devices), the taxpayer would get hit with a massive bill during the annual tax-preparation ritual with little or no chance to dispute the claims of the government.

Plus, let’s talk about equipment costs, both private and public.  This new tax system would require tracking equipment in every vehicle, which would mean retrofit costs for current vehicles and higher prices for new cars immediately.  What are the unemployed supposed to do — stop driving?  That should help when it comes to looking for work.

The government will either have to use GPS devices (that will track and record destination data) or install tollbooth passes every few miles on every road in America. The IRS will also have to set up an enforcement bureau to ensure that drivers don’t disable their tracking systems.  In California, this meant that every driver had to get biennial emission-control equipment inspections, an expensive waste of time and money for most drivers.  Will the IRS, which is just now branching out into the health-insurance inspection business, add a national DMV bureau as well?

Finally, do we really want to live in a country where the federal government virtually follows you everywhere you go?  Growing up in the Cold War, that’s what we were told the Soviet Union was like.  It will be the high-tech version of internal travel documents, or at the very least puts that power in the hands of the federal government.

This is a bad idea when it comes from Democrats, and it’s worse when it comes from Republicans. Perhaps the best idea would be to get the federal government out of the transportation maintenance business with the exception of those highways which are truly interstate, and let the states keep their money and deal with their own transportation issues.

Update: Bill Shuster is furious at Bloomberg, claiming that the piece materially misrepresented his position on this issue:

At Bloomberg Government’s “America on the Move: Investing in U.S. Infrastructure” event on Tuesday, February 4, 2014, House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster spoke about his vision for the next surface transportation reauthorization legislation that he and his committee will be developing in 2014.  During the question and answer portion of the event, Bloomberg’s Peter Cook asked Chairman Shuster about his ideas to fill the Highway Trust Fund.

Chairman Shuster’s response was as follows (excerpt taken from Bloomberg’s transcript), “Now, I do think we need to start the discussion on — and I don’t believe it’s going to be solve in this bill, but start the discussion on, you know, down the road how — is it vehicle miles traveled?  You know, what are the other ways to generate the funds?  Because the trust fund, we all know, everybody’s — in the next couple of years, we’ll all be driving cars going 50 miles an hour, cars that don’t use fuel, use electricity or some say use coal if you use electricity — 50 percent of it is oil; I like to remind that to people….”

Bloomberg’s Laura Litvan reported this comment as, “Mileage Tax Pushed by Shuster to Pay for U.S. Highway Bill.” With the Committee in the initial stages of developing the new surface transportation bill, Chairman Shuster was simply asking a question about the topic. As you can see, based on Bloomberg’s own transcript of the event, this headline misrepresents the Chairman’s comments.

Shuster is the first to raise “vehicle miles traveled” as one of the ideas under consideration, according to the transcript, after Peter Cook asks Shuster to cite “two or three” ideas to increase revenue for Transportation funding. He also added that the committee was watching a study from Iowa State on ten cities that were tracking vehicle miles, which Transportation apparently “expanded” in the last two bills:

shuster-xscript2

That leads directly to this exchange:

shuster-xscriptSo it appears that while it’s an overreach to say that Shuster is proposing this as a solution, it’s not quite the same as saying it only came up because the reporter asked about it.