T&I Chair Bill Shuster Complicates Matters With Push for VMT Fee

All options may be on the table for funding transportation, but Bill Shuster has chosen his.

Rep. Bill Shuster’s choice to bring more transportation funding may be the most effective long-term, but in the short term, its prospects are dim. Photo: ##http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-02-04/mileage-tax-pushed-by-shuster-to-pay-for-highway-bill.html##Bloomberg##

Rep. Shuster, head of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, hasn’t been willing to commit to any one proposal for funding transportation until now. And his choice may make things complicated.

At a Bloomberg Government event yesterday, Shuster came out in favor of a plan to tax drivers not per gallon but per mile.

It seemed that after years of being too gun-shy to raise the gas tax, which hasn’t gone up for 20 years, there was beginning to be some resignation to the idea that it was necessary. In addition to the usual chorus from industry, a bipartisan group of governors recently urged Congress to act. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and his new co-chair at Building America’s Future, former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, are promoting a 10-cent tax hike.

Lawmakers who had previously declined to go on the record were starting to line up behind various proposals, with Rep. Earl Blumenauer suggesting a gas tax hike and Sen. Barbara Boxer offering a wholesale fee on oil.

After all, the bitter reality is this: U.S DOT’s new Highway Trust Fund web ticker says the Highway Account will go dry in August of this year, with the Transit Account staying solvent through the end of September, though just barely.

At the same time Shuster announced he was for a vehicle-miles-traveled fee, he also brought the hammer down on the idea of a gas tax hike.

“Economically, it is not the time” to raise the gas tax, he told the audience. “I just don’t believe the American people have the will out there, in the public or in Congress; even our president has said we’re not going to do that. We’ve got to figure out a different way at this point in time.”

Raising the gas tax is by far the simplest and most popular option for raising revenues for transportation. A VMT fee solves the gas tax’s chief drawback, namely the obsolete reliance on gas consumption when vehicles are getting more and more fuel efficient, with some not using gasoline at all. Shuster seems to allude to this issue when he said, “We don’t want a two-year bill, we want a five- or six-year bill.” Indeed, that’s what everyone — from the trucking industry to the White House — is looking for.

But to implement a VMT well involves tracking vehicles in a way that makes some lawmakers queasy. Sen. Boxer, who will be Shuster’s partner in passing a bill, has already said a VMT fee won’t fly. The chorus of dissent to any government plan to track vehicle movements would be overwhelming, even though advocates say there are many options that would preserve people’s privacy.

Neither Boxer’s committee nor Shuster’s committee is in charge of raising taxes — the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee are working on this issue, and the chairs of those committees haven’t shown their cards yet. But if the people crafting the transportation reauthorization can’t come together on a funding option — and neither of them are willing to push for the one that would be the easiest to explain and implement — that doesn’t bode well.

To those whose prediction had been that, despite the promising rhetoric, the next bill would be another short-term stopgap with a patchwork funding fix: Bravo.

  • Lars Ulrich

    I get the call for higher gas taxes. But when a guy like Rendell who is independently wealthy calls opponents of gas tax hikes “wusses” the rhetoric is empty and unhelpful

  • Eric_Jaffa

    Society should be encouraging people to buy electric vehicles.

    A per-mile tax would discourage the buying of electric vehicles.

  • Colorado

    This is crazy, as it would require a new, huge infrastructure to administer the tax. In addition, a fuel tax has the benefit of scaling based on fuel usage, which roughly corresponds to how much wear and tear the vehicle causes the road infrastructure. A large truck needs more fuel and also caused more road wear than a subcompact. I suspect Shuster and his backers know this, and perhaps the real motivation behind a VMT would be to shift the costs onto the smaller, more efficient vehicles.

  • Ed Crotty

    Miles traveled is totally unenforceable. Higher gas taxes encourages better fuel economy, less CO2. Win-win. Electric cars are so few in number. Maybe in 10 years it needs a revisit. But not until then. Raise the fuel tax.

  • niccolomachiavelli

    Increasing the gas tax politics should marry the XL Pipeline approval politics

  • Nathanael

    In states which have a mandatory yearly inspection, you can totally have an odometer charge.

    I guess it doesn’t work in the crazy states which don’t inspect cars.

  • Mike Mills

    No linkage between states with yearly safety inspection and states without. Yearly safety inspection of vehicles do not result in better safety outcomes.

  • NevadaGreg

    A VMT tax can be a very simple and effective replacement of the fuel tax using the existing annual VMT info collected as part of the vehicle smog check. No need to deal with complicated GIS technology or tracking vehicle movements, although some IT providers are trying to sell us this scenario as the only one…. It is easy to stick with the good old fuel tax but it has been killing us with revenue losses due to both fleet economy improvements and construction inflation effects that are not accounted for… so fix both problems by implementing the VMT fee now and adjust the fee annually based upon the transportation construction inflation index. Make it a rolling five year average of the construction inflation index to minimize annual impacts and sticker shock if we have a year (or more) of rapid construction inflation….there you go: simple, effective, sustainable….change is necessary and this is an easy one to do….

  • wytcld

    What we tax we discourage. We shouldn’t discourage mobility. We should discourage carbon emissions. Taxing carbon-emission-causing fuels is exactly the right tax. Also, as people switch to electric vehicles, tax carbon emissions from power plants using carbon-emission-causing fuels. Those are big, stationary targets. Far easier to tax those than millions of vehicles. People who manage to charge their cars from solar, wind, hydro and tides should get a free ride – or free roads anyway. It’s worth it. We need to encourage this.

    Of course the trucking industry will oppose this because we have no prototypes of electric trucks. Doesn’t scale to that well. Tough. We need to shift more freight back to trains. Trucks haven’t been paying their share of highway maintenance anyway, since ever.

  • Jack Jackson

    So should society also encourage higher coal extraction to generate more electricity for electric vehicles?

    Mr. Shuster is a major proponent for the coal industry in Western PA that Mr. Obama has set out to destroy

  • Jack Jackson

    larger trucks, being mostly diesel powered, already pay a higher gas tax rate

  • Jack Jackson

    people in those “crazy” states still pay for auto safety…it’s called the higher overall auto insurance premiums…the risk is just captured differently

  • Jack Jackson

    Most trucks pay a higher gas tax rate than most passenger cars. They are heavily regulated in terms of weight limit on Interstates and thus rated so to have no more maintenance degradation there than the millions of passenger cars that traverse the same roads.

    States allow heavier trucks on their highways – but charge them permits that in part recapture some of those maintenance costs.

    Call me when an electric motor has enough torque to move trucks en masse. Call me when your carbon hating hippie friends embrace nuclear. Call me when your neighbors get their utility bills.

    Call me when you want to blaze a phat j of whatever it is you’re smoking

    Then maybe you can explain to me how “We need to shift more freight back to trains”

  • wytcld

    Just not true Jack. Many studies show that trucks, which cause the majority of the degradation on Interstates, do not pay taxes which fully cover their share. As is so often the case in America, commerce is favored over individuals.

    I mentioned that electric doesn’t work for trucks. So what? As for utility bills, solar and wind are fully cost competitive, so won’t raise them. Nobody hates carbon as such. We hate climate change. Call me when more than 3% of the scientists who’ve studied that rate is as less than an existential threat to humanity. Call me with your solution for when the crops fail and the climate refugees swarm the borders.

    Shifting more freight back to trains will happen in any case. They’re far more fuel efficient. Fuel costs are going to continue to rise. Oil company exploration investments have gone up substantially without finding much new oil. Check the recent financial reports from Shell and Chevron – which I do, and which cause me heartburn, as I own stock in both.

    Are you a truck driver? Or are you a shill employed by an arm of the Koch brothers’ empire to help block progress? Or do you just like to punch hippies, who can be quaint an naive at times, but who hardly deserve your wrath. Me, I’m a tech nerd, if you like to label folk.

  • Jack Jackson

    “Shifting more freight back to trains will happen in any case. They’re far more fuel efficient”

    There is also far fewer miles of track. Railroads are highly efficient because they have consolidated their networks well. You don’t see rail spurs running along the back of most grocery stores or big box stores, and you won’t because the r.o.w needed for rail expansion is not any less expensive than it is for road. And talk about a NIMBY issue at local government. Go to your next MPO meeting when a Class I has proposed redirecting traffic through someone’s neighborhood.

    If you were able to double freight rail share, it still wouldn’t meet the overall demand for freight in this country…especially due to the time sensitivity of many consumer goods. The only way right now is by truck.

    I think you will continue to see the shift to rail on long hauls simply by the lack of available truck drivers…but that’s at least a market force, not intentional public policy.

    As for the higher utility bills, that’s not from solar/wind. That’s from your proposal to tax the hell out of the higher yield electricity producing plants. The same people who hate carbon emitting plants also hate nuclear. So what’s the alternative? Solar and wind technology simply do not generate enough power to meet the demand of an industrialized economy of our size.

  • wytcld

    You like to paint with a broad brush. James Hansen, the best-known scientist warning against continued carbon emissions, is strongly in favor of nuclear. As are many of us, as long as the plants are of newer, safer design and not the old GE reactors that melted down at Fukushima.

    Some engineers calculate that we could power our entire economy with solar and wind; others disagree. But in any case add nuclear to the mix, along with tidal generation, and there’s no doubt we can do without coal and oil in electrical generation, and can minimize the use of natural gas. There have been days already when the entire electrical load of Germany came from solar and wind. We can certainly get a far higher proportion here than we presently do. And there’s rapid buildout, especially in solar, to achieve that.

    It is true that some living near wind towers are having trouble with psychosomatic illnesses induced by suggestions that the quiet hum of the windmills, or the occasional flicker of the blades, must be bad for them. So yes, there are hippies opposed to wind now. Generalizations such as you throw out often fail to capture reality. Shifting to non-carbon-releasing energy, as far and fast as we can, is not just compatible with but required for the continuation of industrial civilization. That’s why Google and Apple and others of our smartest, highest tech firms are heavily investing in it. As I say, I’m a techie, not a hippie.

    You haven’t answered my questions about yourself.

  • traal

    “Today, over-the-road heavy trucks pay approximately $14,000 per year in combined fuel and other highway taxes. This amount does not come close to paying for the damage to roads and bridges caused by trucks.” http://www.jsonline.com/news/opinion/84269192.html

  • traal

    So we should continue shifting the cost of the roads from the rich onto the poor?

    Do you think it will be easier to raise a VMT fee when there are more people who benefit from no VMT fee?

  • Jack Jackson

    So a guy who stands to personally benefit from the transfer of public resources to private railroads opines on the evil of trucks. Nice try sweetie

  • traal

    We all stand to personally benefit from correcting a distorted market for freight transportation. Even you.

  • Brandon

    we clearly should discourage driving as well as carbon emissions. Excessive driving causes, sprawl. Taxes should encourage more compact land use.

  • Nathanael

    Jack, electric motors have *plenty* of torque to move trucks. They have far more torque than diesel engines.

    Learn your technology.

    The thing preventing electric trucks is *battery technology*. We don’t have batteries which can store enough energy to drive a truck for long distances (or even medium distances). Electric trucks work great for tootling around town making local newspaper or milk deliveries a few miles from HQ, but they just don’t have the range for anything more.

  • Nathanael

    Jack, extremely time-sensitive goods go by airplane. Vaguely time-sensitive consumer goods go by RAIL for most of their distance.

    They are trucked for the last few miles from an intermodal railyard. The biggest two customers of the railroads right now are UPS and FedEx — what does that indicate to you? It’s not due to the lack of truck drivers. It’s because UPS can run 50 truckloads at 80 mph across the country on a single train, using about as much fuel as two trucks and for the cost of about 4 truck drivers.

    Oh, also: solar can easily generate enough power to meet the demand of our economy, we just have to build more of it.

    Learn your tech. The facts are not what you think they are.

  • Nathanael

    So in the crazy states, those of us who maintain our cars properly would get saddled on our insurance bills with the costs of those who don’t maintain their cars properly.

    That seems like a bad deal.

  • Nathanael

    Road damage is proportional to the fourth power of axle load (that’s n^4, n*n*n*n).

    Trucks do not pay their fair share of road maintenance.

  • Nathanael

    It’s possible to power an electric car off the savings from changing your light bulbs from incandescants to LEDs. (I did it.)

    Think about that for a minute.

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