Pro/con: A mileage tax is the best way to repair highways
The richest nation on earth can't pay for the roads it needs anymore. The way the U.S. government collects the money it needs for roads -- through a federal tax on motor fuel -- is outdated and badly needs modernization to adapt to drastically ch...
The richest nation on earth can't pay for the roads it needs anymore. The way the U.S. government collects the money it needs for roads -- through a federal tax on motor fuel -- is outdated and badly needs modernization to adapt to drastically changing circumstances.
In 1956, Congress came up with a "pay-as-you-go" method to fund the Interstate Highway System. Instead of floating bonds, the Federal Highway Trust Fund was created and mainly supported by federal taxes on motor fuel, then 3 cents per gallon.
The Trust Fund's guiding principle was fairness -- the more you used the highways, the more you paid for them. But even though the federal motor fuel tax is now 18.4 cents per gallon, the Trust Fund is going broke.
Better fuel economy, reduced gasoline use and highway travel, and rising construction costs have caused the Highway Trust Fund to run out of money at a time when a first-class highway system is badly needed to help pull our economy out of recession.
To look into this problem, Congress created a 15-member National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission to investigate options and recommend a course of action.
The numbers tell the tale: long-term federal highway revenues are estimated to bring in only $32-billion a year, while highway needs total almost $100-billion a year.
The Commission's unanimous report, released in late February, calls for a 10 cents per gallon boost in the federal gasoline tax -- which equals one-half cent per mile -- followed by a gradual shift from our current reliance on motor fuel taxes toward a fee on actual miles driven.
To measure these miles, the Commission calls for "in-vehicle or after market Global Positioning System devices" that would track the way we drive. The per-mile charge would depend on whether the driving is on crowded urban freeways during rush hour (higher charge) or lightly traveled rural roads (lower charge).
The levels of taxation require careful calibration to ensure fairness. But compared to the current system, fairness should be relatively easy to achieve.
What's fair now about charging a driver who can afford a new 40 mpg hybrid less to use the highways than a construction worker who drives a 20 mpg pickup truck?
Simply raising the fuel tax would be a temporary band-aid on a hemorrhaging Highway Trust Fund. As more fuel-
efficient and hybrid vehicles require less motor fuel, the funding gap will only grow. And as we modernize our vehicles and reduce our motor fuel use, it's time to let the vehicle mileage tax play its role in our highway funding.
Gerald Bastarache is the former director of communications at the Highway Users Federation and the Intelligent Transportation Society of America.