Gas Tax Or Mileage Tax?

California’s legislature just dropped a proposal for increasing the gas tax when it approved its budget just a couple of days ago. Meanwhile, Massachusetts is still waiting to see if its proposed gas tax increase will go through.

Our road, highway, Interstate and bridge infrastructure system is tied to the dollars collected from the gas taxes around the country. In most states, there is a lack of funds to do the required maintenance of our decaying highway system let alone update or make improvements.

Everything you read about how critical our transportation infrastructure is to our future economic and commercial growth is not “BS,” political propaganda, an attempt to get more tax dollars from us. It is the absolute truth. The worst thing that could have happened in California, relative to its future, is failure to add the 12-cent per gallon gas tax increase. The increase would have done two positive things for a state that is looking at operating under a deficit:

  • the increased taxes would have gone into much needed transportation infrastructure, maintenance repairs and updates
  • more people would have to be hired to do the work, California would be making an investment in its future growth.

Massachusetts is currently looking to increase its gas tax. I hope that the legislature there is more in tune with reality than the legislature on the opposite side of the country. If any state needed transportation infrastructure help, it is Massachusetts. This is not a criticism of anyone… it’s a simple statement of facts. For all practical purposes, the upper east coast is grid-locked because of the way all our transportation systems were built.

When we were developing our commerce and industry, our transportation grew in a very competitive environment, not in the way it is growing in China, integrated. ARTBA’s proposed Critical Commerce Corridors illustrates this very clearly.

We’re in one of the worst jambs in our history and a contributing factor is our ever-increasing inability to be competitive with the rest of the world. Granted, greed has been a contributor to the dilemma but so has the fact that we often price ourselves out of many markets. Does it make sense that it’s cheaper to import products from Asia, Europe, and China than it is to transport similar goods from California to North Carolina?

This “soap boxing” is a preamble to a reminder that we will be approving a new transportation infrastructure bill, Highway Bill if you would, this September and it needs to be solid and it needs to address these problems. The stimulus bill “infrastructure dollars” cannot be offered as an “instead” or “We already had a hundred plus billion thrown at the problem.” We need a new substantive bill that address all these problems, a bill that will carry us forward for years, decades, into the next century.

The question is, how do we pay for this investment? Just the other day there was an article that stated President Barack Obama will not adopt a policy to tax motorists based on how many miles they drive instead of how much gasoline they buy. Press secretary Robert Gibbs commented after Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told the Associated Press that he wants to consider the idea, which has been proposed in some states but has angered many drivers.

“It is not and will not be the policy of the Obama administration,” Gibbs told reporters, when asked for the president’s thoughts about the policy and LaHood’s remarks.

Gasoline taxes that for nearly half a century have paid for the federal share of highway and bridge construction can no longer be counted on to raise enough money to keep the nation’s transportation system moving, LaHood told the AP in an interview Thursday.

“We should look at the vehicular miles program where people are actually clocked on the number of miles that they traveled,” the former Illinois Republican lawmaker said Thursday.

LaHood spokeswoman Lori Irving said Friday that the secretary was speaking of the idea only in general terms, not as something being implemented as administration policy.

Most transportation experts see “vehicle miles traveled” (VMT) tax as a long-term solution, but Congress is being urged to move in that direction now by funding pilot projects.

The idea also is gaining ground in several states. Governors in Idaho and Rhode Island are talking about such programs, and a North Carolina panel suggested in December the state start charging motorists a quarter-cent for every mile as a substitute for the gas tax.

A tentative plan in Massachusetts to use GPS chips in vehicles to charge motorists by the mile has drawn complaints from drivers who say it’s an Orwellian intrusion by government into the lives of citizens. Other motorists say it eliminates an incentive to drive more fuel-efficient cars since gas-guzzlers will be taxed at the same rate as fuel sippers.

Besides a VMT tax, more tolls for highways and bridges and more government partnerships with business to finance transportation projects are other funding options, LaHood, one of two Republicans in Obama’s Cabinet, said in the interview Thursday.

“What I see this administration doing is this — thinking outside the box on how we fund our infrastructure in America,” he said. LaHood said he firmly opposes raising the federal gasoline tax in the current recession.

The program that funds the federal share of highway projects is part of a surface transportation law that expires September 30, 2009. Last fall, Congress made an emergency infusion of $8 billion to make up for a shortfall between gas tax revenues and the amount of money promised to states for their projects. The gap between money raised by the gas tax and the cost of maintaining the nation’s highway system and expanding it to accommodate population growth is forecast to continue to widen.

Among the reasons for the gap is a switch to more fuel-efficient cars and a decrease in driving that many transportation experts believe is related to the economic downturn. Electric cars and alternative-fuel vehicles that don’t use gasoline are expected to start penetrating the market in greater numbers.

A blue-ribbon national transportation commission is expected to release a report next week recommending a VMT.

The system would require all cars and trucks be equipped with global satellite positioning technology, a transponder, a clock and other equipment to record how many miles a vehicle was driven, whether it was driven on highways or secondary roads, and even whether it was driven during peak traffic periods or off-peak hours.

The device would tally how much tax motorists owed depending upon their road use. Motorists would pay the amount owed when it was downloaded, probably at gas stations at first, but an alternative eventually would be needed.

Rob Atkinson, chairman of the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission, the blue-ribbon group that is developing future transportation funding options, said moving to a national VMT would take about a decade.

Privacy concerns are based more on perception than any actual risk, Atkinson said. The satellite information would be beamed one way to the car and driving information would be contained within the device on the car, with the amount of the tax due the only information that’s downloaded, he said.

What’s fair? If we use the transportation infrastructure then we should be willing to pay for it. There is no one-way of collecting the money we need to do the job the way it should be done. It will take a combination of methods: gas tax at a cost per gallon; user f
ees based on miles traveled and user fees based on vehicle weights are only a few suggestions.

One thing that will not change is the fact that we need an integrated transportation infrastructure that addresses today’s needs and recognizes the fact that tomorrow’s needs will be completely different but just as critical and demanding.

The following two sites give you state-by-state information on the gas tax. It is interesting to note that taxes for cigarettes and alcohol are considerably higher than any of the gas taxes and when you consider the return value, gas tax is the probably one of the best deals we have going.

Gas Tax Rates by State

State Sales, Gasoline, Cigarette and Alcohol Tax Rates by State 2000 – 2009

Greg Sitek

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