Obama’s Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood opened up the possibility of taxing drivers by vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in the future rather than taxing drivers at the gas pump. Taxing by VMT is a pretty progressive idea, though it would require a large investment in GPS trackers and other technology. A progressive suggestion like that from LaHood — and a recognition of the failure of the gas tax to sustain our highway investments — is encouraging, no? Well, within hours a spokesman for the Department of Transportation — LaHood’s employee — and the White House distanced themselves from LaHood’s remarks: “It is not and will not be the policy of the Obama administration,” said Robert Gibbs, the White House Press Secretary.
Of course that same link has other statements worth considering. “Most transportation experts see a vehicle miles traveled tax as a long-term solution[.]” “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.” “A blue-ribbon national transportation commission is expected to release a report next week recommending a VMT [tax].”
A VMT tax would be a sort of radical change — one that could require millions of cars to be retrofitted — with privacy implications, but how can we fund our surface transporation infrastructure without a radical change?
I think most environmentalists would prefer a VMT tax, but some have made the point that a VMT tax would charge the same regardless of how much gasoline a car burns. That is true, and perhaps a VMT tax should be in addition to the gas tax (perhaps a lower gas tax). But a gas tax isn’t just a free to use gas, it’s a fee to use our public roads. Having electric or hybrid cars pay for their share of the transportation grid makes sense. Charging additional VMT taxes on heavy trucks that damage the roads more — well, that makes sense too. But charging a gas tax on one hand, and mandating that cars use less gas on the other — that’s good for the earth but a very bad way to fund roads and transit.
The Obama administration would do well to listen to its Secretary of Transportation and not rule out possible solutions years too early.