Put the brakes on the per-mile vehicle tax

America’s roads and bridges are crumbling.

Historically, motorists have paid for roads with a gas tax, but it has not kept pace with inflation, nor wirh fuel-efficient hybrid and electric cars that use little to no gas. Some states therefore are considering charging per mile instead of per gallon.

Strangely, this un-progressive idea is gaining traction in progressive states. California, Washington, Nevada and Massachusetts all are kicking the idea around. The liberal Center for American Progress likes it too.

Oregon, one of the few bright spots for Democrats in this month’s elections, seeks 5,000 volunteers to pay 1.5 cents per mile instead of 30 cents per gallon as part of a pilot project.

A mileage tax does have a progressive veneer. It would raise desperately needed money for infrastructure, and it would benefit low-income drivers who typically own older, less-fuel-efficient vehicles.

Scratch the surface, though, and one finds conservative outcomes that will harm the environment, climate change and civil liberties.

Sure, some of the people who drive gas-guzzlers are poor, but many more are just selfish owners of pickup trucks and SUVs. They will save big with a mileage tax.

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - JUNE 2, 2013: White Hummer H2 limousine at the city street. Art Konovalov / Shutterstock.com

MOSCOW, RUSSIA – JUNE 2, 2013: White Hummer H2 limousine at the city street. Art Konovalov / Shutterstock.com

The Oregon proposal illustrates this. Imagine two Oregonians who each drive 10,000 miles per year. Driver A has a hybrid car and gets and average 45 mpg. Under the current per gallon tax, she pays $67 per year. Driver B has an SUV that optimistically gets 17 mpg. He pays $176 in gas tax.

Both would pay the same $150 for 10,000 miles under the proposed mileage tax. Energy-efficient Driver A winds up paying more than double what she paid under the gas tax so that Energy Inefficient Driver B can pay less, and the state can raise some money.

The mileage tax therefore eliminates one of the biggest incentives for choosing a fuel-efficient vehicle.

Supporters spin that as a plus. Everyone pays the same for the same amount of driving, they say. Yet their impacts on the roads, the planet and society are not the same at all.

The idea of using the tax code for social engineering is nothing new. Elected officials from the right and the left hand out tax breaks to things they like, and impose heavier taxes on things they don’t. They levy sin taxes on alcohol, tobacco and marijuana (where applicable) to discourage consumption. They let people who pay mortgages or have children pay less to encourage homeownership and reproduction.

Larger, heavier vehicles cause more wear to pavement than lighter, fuel-efficient ones. The gas tax captures that disparity. (If Oregon really wants to target the people who cause the most wear and tear, it would ban or tax the studded tires that needlessly chew up the roads to the tune of $50 million every year.)

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Meanwhile, the more gasoline a vehicle burns, the more greenhouse gases and other nasty chemicals it emits. Society has a compelling interest in encouraging more-efficient use of natural resources and keeping our air breathable. Making people pay higher taxes for polluting more is one way to do it. A mileage tax, on the other hand, allows people to use as much gas as they like, as inefficiently as they like, without any additional consequence.

Motorists would also lose a great deal of privacy under this scheme as someone would need to track their driving to tally their mileage.

Oregon hopes to get around the Big Brother aspect by contracting GPS tracking and billing to private companies. The companies would store the personal travel information, not the state. But it’s hard to take comfort in that. We have all how seen how well the private sector shields personal data from government snooping (or from hackers). All it will take is one call from an NSA agent, or overzealous police officer, and where one has traveled winds up in a government database. (Such information can also prove useful in contentious divorce cases.)

The Oregon Department of Transportation also figures that those private partners will not charge the state much because what they really want is access to the personal information of all of the state’s vehicle owners. Rather than bill the state, companies would use that data to sell things like insurance and maintenance warranties. If you want to drive, you’ll have to agree to receive more junk mail and aggressive marketing of dubious services. Seeing as those companies will know everywhere you drive, they’ll be able to target their pitches.

The mileage scheme turns out to be a money-loser, too. According to ODOT, overhead on the gas tax is about 0.5 percent in Oregon. Under the mileage tax, even once upfront implementation costs are paid, overhead runs about 5 percent of gross revenue. For the state to maintain its current revenue, it will have to charge motorists more in aggregate just to make up the difference, let alone actually raise more money for roads.

Many states are in a transportation funding hole because lawmakers feared raising the gas tax to keep up with inflation and the marketplace. Sadly, the mileage tax is not the answer.


Christian Trejbal is a freelance editorial writer, editor and political consultant based in Portland, Ore. He wrote exclusively for The (Bend) Bulletin and The Roanoke Times before founding Opinion in a Pinch. He serves on the board of directors of the Association of Opinion Journalists Foundation and is open government chairman. Follow him on Twitter @ctrejbal and facebook.

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  • ODB-II wasn’t implemented industry-wide until 1996, hardly antique.

  • jemand2

    If done slowly enough might it just push freight more toward rail, at least for super long distance, which might be better anyway?

    I’m not really sure, but especially including the damage and cost (in money and resources) of repairing roads (I didn’t know how damaging trucks were), trains and train tracks may be better suited to the weight, with only more local deliveries going by truck?

  • Chilly8

    The problem with a GPS based system is that is has to have programming to know when you are in the state, or not, so that knows not to tax you when you are out of state.

  • Chilly8

    Beware that some states are now cracking down on GPS jammers with penalties even more severet than the Feds. While the FCC currently only fines people for using GPS jammers, some states now have criminal laws.

  • lisa5295

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  • Eebadee-eebadee-thatsallfolks

    Full disclosure: I am a civil engineer. I don’t like the per-mile tax idea and I do think it is regressive. However, the argument in the article that the largesr, heavier passenger vehicles do more damage than the lighter ones is disingenuous to the point of being just plain wrong. It is multi-axle trucks that do almost all the damage to the infrastructure. It has been demonstrated on test pavement slabs that a fully loaded freight truck going over the slab just once causes as much damage as a passenger vehicle going over the slab 300,000 times. The differences between the effects of a Prius and an Avalanche are negligible. Most people have no concept just how heavy big trucks are.

    If justly distributing the costs is the goal, then the vast majority of it should fall on trucking companies. However, doing that would paralyze or severely disrupt the economy. So the states will have to come up with another solution such as user fees or increasing the gas tax or this per-mile idea.

  • MoonDragon

    In general, where feasible, employer supported commute options are a good thing. I’m not sure how wide spread the option is, but when it can be done, it’s a good benefit.

  • SkippyFlipjack

    Sorry, I think my point got lost in the details. I was just saying that employer-provided shuttles are generally a good thing. There are definitely locations in which they work better than others, or in which they’re not feasible.

  • SkippyFlipjack

    Or the companies move to SF, which is exactly what’s been happening.

  • nicho

    I agree. But if the companies didn’t furnish the luxury buses, employees would be living near their jobs instead of ruining San Francisco for normal working people.

  • nicho

    You drive an antique car? That’s cool. Sounds expensive.

  • putaro

    The reason that Google, et al. started running their own shuttles is because more of their employees wanted to live in SF proper and getting up and down the Peninsula via public transportation is a disaster. I used to work in Cupertino and live in SF. If I drove (this was back when traffic was lighter on the “counter commute” I could make it from SF to Cupertino in about 45 minutes. If I took the train it was about 2 hours door-to-door and I lived close to one of the major bus routes in SF (38 Geary). None of these companies want to run their own shuttle network. They started doing it because public transportation has not been invested in properly.

  • MoonDragon

    If one’s commute goes from an hour by car to two hours for a shuttle that has a circuitous route, maybe not, particularly if one needs to address childcare issues. Winter reliability is also an issue, considering the nature of the roads in rural, hilly areas. Affordability is also a concern.

  • SkippyFlipjack

    It may not be practical but it would be desirable for employees, right?

  • SkippyFlipjack

    Are you saying a typo in a headline doesn’t look a little cheap?

  • RepubAnon

    There’s always the easy way: keep the per gallon fuel tax, impose a vehicle tax on electric cars based on the electricity they use. Home chargers could easily be metered.

    Pshaw, you say? Consider: fuel oil for oil heaters can also be used as diesel fuel for vehicles – but it isn’t subject to vehicle taxes. You could fuel your car by siphoning fuel from your oil heater (if you have one), but that fuel is dyed red… just like the fuel for farm vehicles. There are penalties for illegally fueling your car with “red diesel”:

    BISMARCK, N.D. – Legislators heard testimony Friday from those supporting higher fines for drivers who illegally fill their tanks with red-dyed diesel fuel meant for agricultural use.

    The benefit of using red-dyed diesel fuel is that it is taxed at a lower rate than regular diesel fuel…

    (Source: Bismark Tribune, Tougher penalties wanted for red-dyed diesel fuel violations

    We can’t dye electrons red – but we could make folks with home chargers for their electric cars put meters on their chargers. As roadside charging stations get more prevalent, one could easily set up some kind of reporting system where drivers account are credited each time they charge their car at a public charging station. Put an odometer check on electric cars, monitored by the same folks currently doing vehicle emission equipment testing. Simple, minimally intrusive, no GPS spygear required.

    Far less troublesome than a GPS system – although, sadly, it wouldn’t mean a big windfall for the well-connected parasites pushing the GPS-based mileage tax scam.

  • texasdiver

    I’m willing to bet that the first time a mandatory per-mile tax is implemented somewhere we will see youtube videos pop up in hours showing how to defeat the system. I can already buy a cheap radio signal jammer that will block GPS devices from knowing where I am. And if some government transponder on my car “accidentally” falls off or accidentally collides with a sledge hammer what then? They are are going to have to employ a fleet of repair shops to keep these things functioning. People will figure out how to take them off and let the transponder stay “parked” in the garage while they are out driving. Doing a voluntary test in Oregon is a far cry from subjecting this nonsense to the efforts of those who’s life hobby is to tinker with and modify their vehicles.

    As for the privacy concerns? The first time there is a major law enforcement crisis like say..the Boston Marathon bombing we will see law enforcement clamoring to get ahold of the GPS tracking data. And then it is just a slippery slope until we are at the point that our local police can bring up the speed and location of any and every car in the country on their computer screens.

    Finally there is the problem of cross jurisdictional driving. If I live in Washington and have Washington tags and I commute to Oregon I get off without paying tax because I never have to register my car in Oregon. And all the millions of people driving through the state every year on I-5 would also pay no state tax because they wouldn’t have Oregon transponders in their cars. Right now they at least have to stop and get gas somewhere. This sort of program will greatly increase the number of people who try to evade taxes by licensing their cars outside the taxing jurisdiction. It is already a problem but will only get worse.

    Just raise the dang gas tax already.

  • emjayay

    On the other hand, in NYC the subway system goes really far and costs the same for any length ride, unlike say BART, DC Metro, or for that matter Lonthe don Tube, which all go really far but cost more the farther you go.

  • emjayay

    Not mine. Too old and stupid.

  • emjayay

    The UK has a CO2 output related annual fee as well.

  • emjayay

    In other news, its and it’s are different words with different meanings, as well as their, there, and they’re.

  • Latverian Diplomat

    Efficiency and weight are factors in mpg, not independent of it.

    (Miles driven)/MPG = fuel purchased.

    People who ride together are either friends and family or have some arrangement for sharing costs already, that’s a non-problem.

    So the existing gas tax does everything you are asking for, and it’s easy and cheap to collect and respects privacy.

  • Latverian Diplomat

    Unless and until heavy electric become common, taxing fuel gets you this for cheap, in a way that respects every driver’s privacy.

  • MoonDragon

    State College is in the middle of nowhere. The rural communities from which many staff commute are widely dispersed. The idea that PSU would (or could effectively) supply an affordable shuttle to half a dozen (or more) geographically separated communities at distances of 30 miles or more is unlikely. It really isn’t practical.

  • nicho

    I used San Francisco as the extreme example. But you have the same situation — minus the luxury coaches — in other cities. In Boston and New York, the working folks can’t afford to live in the center city either. Rents and prices in both places are already out of sight.

  • SkippyFlipjack

    San Francisco is kind of a unique example, in terms of the wealth and geography and demographics. If Penn State made shuttles available for the staff would you have an issue with it? The tech shuttles are only an issue in SF because there is SO much money in Silicon Valley, so the buses cause skyrocketing housing prices 50 miles away. In general, company shuttles are a great idea because they get a lot of cars off the road.

    The shuttles do make good proxy targets for wealth inequality. Google and others don’t help themselves by making their shuttle buses look like something stormtroopers would use to commute to work on the Death Star.

  • SkippyFlipjack

    Put the “brakes” on the per-mile tax.

    Or is this a suggestion to add tax breaks to the tax?

  • Per-mile is both anti-progressive (just like sales taxes) as well as anti-environmental, since it clearly would tax those who drive Hummers at the same rate as someone with one of those tiny electric Smart Cars.

    Belgium and Norway have interesting systems where they tax based on engine size and calculated CO2 output.

  • timncguy

    The per-mile tax should only be considered if it also includes as part of the calculation the weight and fuel efficiency of the vehicle. These taxes are collected to build and maintain roads. It is well established fact that heavier vehicles cause more wear and tear on the roads and should therefore pay more per mile than lighter vehicles.

  • nicho

    Or we could just tax mileage flown on private jets and get the burden off of working people.

  • nicho

    I think the OBD II port can provide that information. Maybe it needs a specia device for that.

  • That could work if you can find an agreeable formula. The danger is that such a formula becomes a mechanism for catering to special interests.

  • Nicho is right that it’s not too difficult, but it is a little more complicated. The potential tripwire is that the state would only charge you for driving you do on public roads. If, for example, you are a rancher driving your vehicle around your property, that wouldn’t be taxable. Hence the raw mileage is not enough. You also need GPS data to know how many of the miles were on roadways.

  • Thanks, Jim.

  • Jim Olson

    Good analysis. Clear, and me, the non-math major, can understand it.

  • nicho

    Not much. There is a data port in your car that supplies information on your driving patterns, mileage, fuel usage, etc.

  • nicho

    Exactly. Both tax schemes are highly regressive. In the large cities, which have become playgrounds for the rich, only the extremely wealthy can live in town. The people who make the city work — waiters and waitresses, teachers, nurses, store clerks, you name it, have to commute, sometimes long distances. So, not only do they get burned by commuting costs, they get ripped off on either per-gallon or mileage taxes.

    Take San Francisco. While the millionaire tech babies can glide back and forth to the office – miles away — on company supplied luxury buses, ordinary people have to sit in traffic, maintain cars, and then pay higher taxes for the privilege.

  • S1AMER

    A large proportion of poorer people, the ones who drive older, inefficient vehicles (electrics and hybrids are for the people who can afford them, not the people who need them), also tend to live farther from their jobs (housing in exurbia is cheaper than in nearer suburbs, and small towns and rural areas way out are cheaper still).

    Beyond that, though, and even beyond privacy matters — how the hell much would it cost to actually check how many miles one drives?

  • MoonDragon

    Here in the environs of Penn State, it is well known that the professors live close by and the staff live, in many cases, 15, 20, or 30 miles outside of town. The per mile tax will hit them hard. This is true of any area where the real estate prices near the job centers outstrips the lower earners ability to pay.

  • GarySFBCN

    A tax based upon the actual miles driven multiplied by the rate, and being variable, being based upon MPG, emissions efficiency and vehicle weight. seems fair. If we could determine the number of passengers, the rate could be reduced for each passenger who isn’t the driver.

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