Blumenauer: Let’s Stop Hiding in Fear of a Mileage Fee

In June, the House of Representatives voted to ban U.S. DOT from even studying the viability of switching from the gas tax to a vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT) fee. But the tide may be turning: The sponsor of the amendment, Rep. Chip Cravaack, has been ousted from Congress, the amendment itself is on the skids, and a new bill would actually require the government to study the VMT option.

A dashboard-mounted transponder like this can record mileage. Photo: ##http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2007/01/02/mileagetax/##ODOT##

The ban had been attached to a 2013 budget bill which still hasn’t passed. As Congress seeks to re-open negotiations on the budget, it appears House leaders are scuttling it. Transportation Appropriations Subcommitee Chair Tom Latham – himself a big supporter of the ban on researching a VMT fee — told Politico last Friday that the language was “not an issue.”

Also on Friday, Rep. Earl Blumenauer introduced a bill [PDF] mandating that the Treasury Department — not U.S. DOT — study the option. The choice of Treasury is a reasonable one, since it’s a revenue issue — and it would circumvent Cravaack’s ban on a DOT study, even if it does survive.

President Obama has resisted switching to a VMT fee, specifically walking back a DOT idea to study the option last year. But incoming Transportation Committee Chair Bill Shuster has said a mileage-based user fee is a “fair” way to pay for transportation infrastructure. He may come up against vehement opposition from rural members of his own party if he tries to pursue it.

Blumenauer’s home state of Oregon has taken the lead on testing a VMT fee as an alternative to taxing gasoline, which will become a less viable way to fund transportation as vehicles become more fuel-efficient. In a press release, Blumenauer lamented the $48 billion in bailouts transportation has required over the past four years and the $15 billion it will likely need at the end of the current transportation law.

Sensitive to privacy concerns often expressed about vehicles being outfitted with transponders, Blumenauer’s bill suggests that a national pilot program be evaluated, first and foremost, on the basis of the protection of personal privacy. It also recommends public acceptance, equity, and usability as criteria.

The bill wouldn’t broaden Oregon’s pilot to other states, per se, but would make grants to universities and manufacturers to develop the technology that could be used to measure mileage and transfer payments to the government. The program would cost $155 million.

Blumenauer’s proposal could get a vote on the floor as a standalone bill or remain on the table as a possible provision in the next transportation authorization.

  • Anonymous

    Don’t we Already pay taxes that are supposed to be used to fund these things as opposed to wars, military contractors, WoD’s, tax breaks for 2%, Oil/Ag Subsidies and etc?  No more taxes/fees unless and until other Wastes and unintended expenditures are ended.

  • Anonymous

    Would a VMT tax discourage people from buying fuel efficient cars?

  • Lyqwyd

    I’m opposed to anything that simultaneously adds complexity (the political issues will not be fixed by switching to VMT), allows the government to track every mile I travel, and rewards the least efficient vehicles in relation to the most efficient.

  • Abe

    They would only be able to track every mile you travel *by car*. There’s an easy solution there if you have the will.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    Let’s stop being bat shit insane with all the mileage-tracking nonsense.

    Carbon tax.

    End of story.  (End of planet.)

  • Bruce Nourish

    I completely fail to understand why any environmentalist/urbanist/alt. transportation advocate would want a VMT tax. Compared to the gas tax, it’s far more more complex, expensive and intrusive to administer, would be wildly unpopular, and doesn’t provide a particularly good efficiency incentive.

    The level of gas tax you need to make state and federal highway programs solvent is not at all unreasonable when compared to rates in other developed nations. Gas tax doesn’t perfectly capture all externalities, but that’s a much smaller problem compared to the logistics and politics of a VMT tax.

    This should be an opportunity to ally with rural legislators (who normally disagree with everything we do) and kill the idea. 

  • Lyqwyd

    @Abe, I also object to the government tracking other people’s travel. And of course the other two points are still valid whether I stop using a car or not.

  • Lyqwyd

    @Abe, I also object to the government tracking other people’s travel. And of course the other two points are still valid whether I stop using a car or not.

  • Lyqwyd

    @Abe, I also object to the government tracking other people’s travel. And of course the other two points are still valid whether I stop using a car or not.

  • Lyqwyd

    @Abe, I also object to the government tracking other people’s travel. And of course the other two points are still valid whether I stop using a car or not.

  • Let’s take a case analysis of a Prius and a Hummer who both drive the same number of miles each year.
    A VMT would charge both drivers the same, yet it is clear the Hummer driver does more damage to the roads and the environment.
    A gas tax would charge the Hummer driver more per mile driven simply based on MPG.
    So ideally, the solution includes both taxes set up in a way that establishes a fair balance.

  • It truly is amazing that politicians are so afraid of higher gas taxes that they think a VMT might somehow be more palatable.  At this point anything would be better than our current regime of subsidizing gasoline burning and car use.  However, as others have pointed out, gas taxes are easy to collect, require no additional infrastructure and no invasive technology.  In addition, they reward low CO2 emissions, efficient use of energy, and help reduce our dependence on foreign fossil fuels. I would suggest we follow the lead of wealthy, well-run countries around the world and price gas much, much higher.  Perhaps increase the gas tax by a dime a month until we hit nordic status.

    Gasoline prices August 2012 in nine countries that are healthier, wealthier and have a higher standard of living than the US (price in US dollars):  Norway (a net oil exporter) $10.12/gallon, Switzerland $7.66/gallon, Australia $6.41/gallon, Sweden $8.14/gallon, Denmark (a net oil exporter) $8.20/gallon, Finland $7.59/gallon, Netherlands  $8.26/gallon, Austria $6.49/gallon and Canada (a net oil exporter) $5.46 gallon.

  • The VMT tax continues to make zero sense. 

    I can only guess that, as with BRT, there are at least a few well-intentioned people who truly believe that creating some massive new bureaucracy will be helpful to….someone, or something, or serve some good-ish purpose.

    Let’s Stop Hiding in Fear of an increased gas tax

  • The government collects all sorts of personal data about us under the guise of “protection” and thwarting terrorism and no one complaints. If you don’t have a problem with the government, or cell phone and internet companies for that matter, collecting personal information from websites that you use, I don’t see why there would be a problem with this from a privacy standpoint.

  • Anonymous

    Why are we even having a discussion about a VMT tax? Because we need more funding for infrastructure, and it’s impossible to raise the gas tax. But why is it “impossible” to raise the gas tax? Because the Republican Party has decided that it is.

    Now that begs a curious question: why would Republicans insist we can’t raise the gas tax, but say they are willing to discuss a VMT? The gas tax is less intrusive, and requires only an act of congress – the infrastructure for collecting it already exists. On the other hand, a VMT is more intrusive, and requires a new bureaucracy to enforce it. The infrastructure for collecting it does not exist, requiring up front huge capital costs. And it would be a system rife with fraud, the same way that many people “pass” a state safety inspection by slipping a few bucks to a friend at a service station.

    And the answer is that the VMT is a red herring. The Republicans have no intention of allowing a VMT to be implemented. It is a diversion that allows them to pretend they’re doing something. After years of study, during which the general fund will continue to be raided for highway funding, public backlash will ensure the VMT will fail. Then the GOP will throw their hands up in the air and say “see we tried! Let’s just keep funding highways out of the general fund”.

    If you’re a progressive and you’re excited about a VMT for some reason (reasons that, as an engineer and a progressive, seem to escape me), think long and hard about that. By supporting this nonsense – nonsense that will cost $155m, which could otherwise be used to build a lot of nice urban street infrastructure – you might actually be enabling the continuation of the status quo.

  • Joe B

    VMT is a red herring.

    Instead, we should put locking fare gates on all the highways, accessible only with a confusing RFID card that can be purchased only at a few obscure locations in the city, and which often doesn’t work. This will frustrate users so much that they will choose an alternative method of transportation.

    Hey, it worked to dissuade people from using LA County Metro buses and trains; no reason to think it wouldn’t work for our highways as well.

  • Chance

    Given the seemingly universal disapproval of the VMT, I would speculate this is being used as a bargaining chip to increase fuel taxes. Dem’s. will stop considering the VMT when Rep. start considering the fuel tax. Besides, we are well on our way to VMTs, they’re called HOT lanes and they will be as ubiquitous as carpool lanes.

  • However, if the VMT does ever come to pass, then it might be able to set up the bureaucracy and infrastructure for several other useful reforms.  For instance, it might be possible to institute some sort of graduated VMT, where you pay $1.00 per mile in congested areas and times, and $.01 per mile in uncongested areas and times, which would basically be a congestion charge.

    I do generally agree though that without something like that, simply raising the gas tax would be more progressive and effective at achieving worthwhile policy goals.

  • Abaquerolima

    Okay, so Im not afraid of the VMT. Im afraid tgat government will add that tax ON TOP OF the current gas tax. No.

  • Abaquerolima

    There
    is also another possibility. Take away the VMT and the general gas tax. Highways can no longer be maintained and the only viable option would be to build and use mass transit. Private investment would be drawn unlike with public suppoert. Win-win all around.

  • Abaquerolima

    Not to mention our ever increasing entitlement programs

  • Abaquerolima

    Maybe it would. I would prefer just get rid of both taxes. If our subsidized highways cant be funded, then mass transit would be the government’s (and private investments’) only alternative.

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