We all knew that once the Democrats took over Congress and the White House we’d be hearing about tax increases. That was just a given, and most of them have plans to increase almost everyone’s income taxes. But there’s another tax debate going on at the state level and it involves the maintenance of the nation’s roadways. Two states – Oregon and Utah – have already begun experimenting with a so-called VMT, which stands for “vehicle miles traveled.” That’s where you are charged a few pennies (initially) for every mile you drive each year. This probably sounds like yet another case of bored legislators sitting around and dreaming up new and creative ways to empty your wallet, but there actually is a working theory behind this.
What state lawmakers are fretting over is how they will pay for road maintenance after a significant number of drivers have switched to electric vehicles. Currently, the bulk of that funding comes from gas taxes in most states. But as the share of electric vehicles increases, that tax revenue will go down proportionally. And they still have to find a way to pay for fixing all of the potholes and repaving entire roads. Hence the push for a VMT in many states. (WaPo)
Many [states] have settled on an answer: charging drivers a penny or two for each mile behind the wheel. But while such a system would bring in tax dollars for roads, it also would present a new set of obstacles.
States are leading the way, with Oregon and Utah launching the first programs and several others running pilots to test technology and build public support. The approach has bipartisan support in Washington, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has signaled his openness.
But existing programs operate on a small scale, and a national system would mean tracking millions of vehicles. Supporters are pushing for the quick adoption of proposals to maintain funding of the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, while opponents, including environmental advocates, argue the shift is premature at a time when electric vehicles are a fraction of cars on the road. New fees also would slow their adoption, they say.
This idea has more holes in it than a sieve. Gas taxes are far too high in many states as it is, but at least the system is somewhat fair and targeted. The people who drive the most and therefore buy the most gas (as well as creating the most wear and tear on the roads) pay the most. People who don’t travel much or only use public transportation aren’t burdened with the cost.
There is no direct translation to an electricity tax that’s specific to transportation from a gas tax, however. There will eventually be recharging stations around the country to support the growing number of electric vehicles, so you could try adding a tax for those services. But the majority of people are probably going to wind up recharging their cars overnight at their homes. Barring some scheme to place a tax on everyone’s electricity consumption, that’s not going to work. And if you tax all electricity, you’re now imposing the cost of road maintenance on people who don’t drive.
Also, if you want to have a VMT, you immediately run into the question of how you’re going to keep track of everyone’s odometers. Expecting everyone to work on the honor system and make a note of the mileage on their cars each year and send in the money would leave the system open to massive fraud and abuse. I suppose the technology has advanced far enough that the government could force the automotive industry to install some sort of spyware in the car that would record the mileage and rat you out to the government every time you were within range of a cell tower, but that sounds kind of creepy, doesn’t it?
Beyond that, you’re talking about an awful lot of people’s data being tracked. That would very likely include not only how far you drove, but where you went. It’s bad enough that I already have Google Maps sending me monthly reports on my every movement, and now we’re going to be sending all of that information to every level of the government?
This isn’t just happening at the state level, by the way. The federal gas tax (currently 18.4 cents per gallon) is under scrutiny for the same reasons and legislators from both parties have expressed “interest” in some sort of a federal VMT. Congressman Sam Graves (R-Mo.) is on the House Transportation Committee and he has already spoken up in favor of a federal VMT. Our new Transportation Secretary, Pete Buttigieg (because he’s always liked cars) has said he’s open to the idea.
I’m not saying that there’s a quick and easy solution to the issue being debated, but a VMT just sounds like we’re going to be exchanging one problem for several new ones.