House adds language to block development of mileage tax to Transportation bill

And so the idea that almost everyone professes to hate but that keeps mysteriously returning gets banished again — for now.  Despite protestations that the Obama administration opposes the idea of a vehicle mileage tax (VMT) to augment the gasoline tax whose revenues have been declining because of fuel-efficiency standards and decreased mobility in a poor economy, the proposed Transportation bill had $300 million in funding for development of the VMT … just in case, apparently, it starts to grow on people.  Freshman Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-MN) successfully amended the bill to block any funding related to VMT:

The House has approved an amendment that would prevent the Secretary of Transportation from exploring raising new highway revenues by taxing cars for each mile they drive.

Members are considering the 2013 spending bill for the Transportation Department and other agencies, and late Wednesday, they accepted an amendment from Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-Minn.) that would block any money in the bill from being used to explore a so-called Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) tax system. The House approved the language by voice vote.

“There is an important need to come up with new, better ideas on how to appropriately fund our highway trust fund system,” Cravaack said. “However, I’m here to tell you today that the concept of using a Vehicle Miles Traveled fee system is not one of those better ideas.”

Cravaack said such a system would hurt rural drivers, cost a lot to implement, since it would require devices in each car to track how many miles have been driven, and could impinge on privacy rights.

No kidding.  I’ve written a few times about the Big Brother aspects of the VMT, which would require either that drivers keep extensive logs of their travels, or that GPS or other devices would have to be installed in passenger vehicles and accessible by government officials on demand.  Two months ago, I wrote about the curious aspects of the MAP-21 legislation that dealt with the effort to make passenger-vehicle  “black boxes” (technically known as “event data recorders,” or EDRs) mandatory starting in 2015:

I suppose this is based on the OnStar system, which relays GPS coordinates to a call center when airbags deploy, but that is a private transaction between the owner and the service.  This is supposedly a mandate for event-data recorders, not for transmitters and ongoing two-way communications.  What would a black box have to do with emergency response if all they do is record?  How much surveillance would these EDRs allow, anyway?

I suspect that this is an effort by the Senate to plow the road for a mileage tax.  With gasoline tax revenues expected to drop with the advent of electric and hybrid vehicles (a large assumption, by the way), Democrats have been looking for ways to recoup the lost revenue.  They have repeatedly discussed and occasionally proposed instituting a mileage tax, which would either force drivers to keep extensive records of their travel or to add a device that calculates mileage and transmits it to the government.  Forcing manufacturers to include EDRs would give future Congresses the device necessary for this step; all it would take would be a future modification to Title 49, part 563 to require mileage collection.  There doesn’t appear to be any other pressing reason to add EDRs to the family car.

If the House passes the Transportation bill with Cravaack’s amendment intact, the Senate will have to do the same in order for this bar to take effect.  That seems doubtful to me, as Democrats have been looking longingly at the VMT for years as a way to ensure revenue from drivers.  The House will have to remain firm in conference committee, which means this bears watching.  We may need at some point to rethink the revenue stream for transportation-related projects, but it shouldn’t involve the installation of tracking devices on vehicles and further invasions of privacy for drivers, especially at the federal level when most traffic never crosses state lines at all.