Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Congress Mulls Research Into a Vehicle Mileage Tax

An Oregon congressman has filed legislation to spend $154.5M for a research project into tracking per-vehicle mileage in the US, and asks: "Do we really want the government to track our movement and driving habits on a regular basis?" "US Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) introduced H.R. 3311 earlier this year to appropriate $154,500,000 for research and study into the transition to a per-mile vehicle tax system... Oregon has successfully tested a Vehicle Miles Traveled fee... the [Oregon] report urged a mandate for all drivers to install GPS tracking devices that would report driving habits to roadside RFID scanning devices." Here is the bill (PDF). The article notes that the congressman's major corporate donors would likely benefit with contracts if such a program were begun.

There is an interesting problem of how we should handle road tax. Currently taxes on gasoline pay for roads, that has worked for a while, as the more you use the roads the more you use gas. The problem is vehicles that use less gas for the same mileage. This means that a fuel efficient or electric car isn't paying its fair share of road maintenance. Often people will argue that fuel efficient cars should pay less gas tax since they pollute less. I'm all for a tax on pollution sources that would be used to counter the pollution (as in however much it would cost to sequester the carbon released from burning a gallon of gas is how much the tax on a gallon should be, and what the tax should be used for). However, that is not what the gas tax is for, it's for road maintenance.

A solution often proposed is to move from a gas tax to a mileage tax. So instead of paying per gallon of gas, which in turn should correlate to your mileage, you just directly pay based on your mileage. An obvious way of implementing this would be to check the car's odometer. Virtually every car has an odometer, and they are already difficult to tamper with. However whenever these mileage based taxes are proposed they instead intend to use GPS tracking. The only somewhat legitimate benefits of GPS over odometer mileage monitoring is that GPS could exclude out of state, and private road driving. Note however that the current gas tax does nothing about these uses (and even taxes completly nonroad related uses like lawn mowers). I drive on PA roads every day, yet I've never paid the PA road tax, since I buy my gas in the much cheaper NJ. This isn't really that much a problem, since most driving is done in your home state, and on public roads. To be fair interstate trucking would see trucks being registered to whatever state has the lowest mileage based tax. However trucks already buy their gas in states with cheaper gas, and avoid paying any gas tax in many states. Also since interstate trucking would be mostly on interstate highways you could implement truck only tolls.

The problems with GPS should be fairly obvious. First there's the government tracking issue. Next the fact that no cars currently have the GPS systems (I highly doubt consumer navigation systems would be used). Then there's the fact that GPS requires constant satellite contact, and is very easy to break (tin foil over antenna). Since it is so easy to circumvent I can't imagine governments not doing something to try to prevent this. The best I could come up with would be killing the engine if you don't have a GPS signal for an extended amount of time (over 10 minutes). That'd be fun if there was ever a traffic jam through a tunnel. Lastly how do you handle out of state drivers? Are you not allowed in the state without the GPS system (probably unconstitutional)? Do you just let them use your roads for free? What happens when people register their cars out of state just to avoid your milage tax?

However, I think we should be moving away from a usage based tax at all. I'm always in favor of reducing the number of taxes, as I think it works to hide the true cost of taxes when they are spread over so many different forms. More importantly though, I feel that everyone benefits from roads, even if they personally don't drive. Even someone who lived in a city and biked all the time (for the sake of argument let's pretend they don't bike on public roads), would still benefit from the roads being available. Every good purchased is likely transported over public roads. Not to mention emergency responders being able to quickly reach wherever they need to. The money to maintain roads should just come from the general income tax.

I am however, for GPS tracking in publicly owned vehicles. All data from the GPS as well as various other sources should then be made publicly available automatically (internet being ideal for this). Since the public is paying for the gas and maintenance of these cars it'd be nice to see if they were being driven in a way which is wasteful or stressful at times when it isn't justified. Some delay in the data would be reasonable for certain vehicles (say 24 hours for police cars). Then you could also get a court order to suppress certain vehicle's data for longer (say for prolonged undercover investigations), but eventually it would have to be published. I suppose I could foresee this leading to private security forces contracted by the government, which would be very bad (think Blackwater and the military).

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