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They’re calling for a “vehicle miles traveled” (VMT) tax because, darn it, cars and trucks are becoming more fuel-efficient. Drivers are getting more miles for each gallon of gasoline or diesel fuel they buy, which means fuel tax revenues have not been growing as much as government officials would like. Taxing us on each mile driven would get them more money.
The intrusiveness of such a scheme, especially in light of the continuing revelations about the U.S. government spying on Americans and even heads of state of some of this nation’s staunchest allies, should worry us all. Do we really want the federal or state governments knowing every mile we drive, and possibly every place we go? In Oregon, where several thousand drivers are participating in a tax-per-mile system test, GPS is included in some of the “black boxes” that record miles driven.
To the “If you’re doing nothing wrong, you should have no problem being tracked” crowd, let us ask: Do you put curtains, drapes, or blinds over the windows in your home? Following their logic, if you’re doing nothing wrong, you should take down all your window coverings and let people peer inside whenever they want.
Some things are no one else’s business, even if those things are legal. If we don’t want our neighbors or even our close relatives watching us whenever they like, how could we possibly want government bureaucrats we don’t know—bureaucrats whose power is backed up by the threat of police violence and prisons—tracking every mile we drive?
There’s no disputing the federal Highway Trust Fund is broke. But this is partly because money has been diverted to things other than roads and bridges—public transit, sidewalks, bike paths, scenic trails, etc. A simple solution would be to end the diversions and spend money that is collected for highways on highways.
Motor fuel taxes also could be raised. The federal gasoline and diesel fuel taxes have remained unchanged at 18.4 cents and 24.4 cents a gallon, respectively, for nearly 20 years. But raising gas taxes angers people. A VMT would be less transparent. To people in government, an easy-to-see tax is never as good as one that is easy to hide.
This is why there is nearly universal opposition among politicians to ending withholding of income taxes. If people had to regularly send Uncle Sam a check for income tax owed, there’d be much fiercer opposition to the tax. With the tax owed automatically withheld from paychecks, workers never see the money, and they’re less inclined to miss it. It would be a similar experience with the electronic tallies of a VMT tax.
VMT advocates complain that hybrid cars and electric vehicles burn little or no gasoline, so people drive them for free. But those vehicles are still just a tiny sliver of the nation’s rolling stock. Moreover, it would be easy to impose a special tax on them at time of purchase, or an annual tax, to make up the difference. This would be poetic justice, in fact, considering the thousands of dollars of subsidies the government showers on such vehicles and their buyers, who receive hefty tax credits for their purchases.
Another solution—one that many states have begun using—is to use “public-private partnerships” in which private companies put up their own funds to help fund transportation infrastructure projects.
“Our own recent survey identified 18 jurisdictions that are financing big-ticket highway and bridge ‘mega-projects’ without federal funding. Instead, they are using long-term credit (private and TIFIA [federal Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act money]), ‘availability payments,’ private equity risk capital, and concession agreements,” wrote transportation expert C. Kenneth Orski in a recent issue of his InnovationBriefs newsletter.
Raise fuel taxes. End diversions of highway funds. Charge a road fee for owners of hybrid and electric cars. Leverage existing federal programs to involve private companies to address highway needs. These all would be better solutions than the hidden and privacy-violating VMT.
Steve Stanek (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a research fellow at The Heartland Institute in Chicago.