Monday, August 2, 2010

Gasoline Taxes on Mileage Fee

For decades, paying for roads has been fairly straightforward. Motorists pay at the pump through gasoline taxes. It's more or less fair, too: The more you drive, the more you pay. But more and more, people involved in transportation planning and construction say that model is breaking down as many vehicles get better gas mileage or don't use gasoline at all.

They say state and federal governments eventually should switch to a system that charges a tax based on how many miles you drive, not how many gallons you consume. As gasoline-tax revenue stagnates, the idea is to institute a true user fee tied to miles driven.

It was a major recommendation in 2009 when a 60-member panel met to discuss Ohio's transportation future. Gov. Ted Strickland hasn't taken up the idea, said Scott Varner, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Transportation, but it hasn't been dismissed, either.

In a time when global-positioning systems can track exactly where you go, how much would the government know about where or how far you drive? Could cities demand a share for the mileage you drive on their streets? Could it cost more to drive at rush hour? Would collection be as seamless as the gasoline tax?

The Oregon Department of Transportation tested replacing the state's gasoline tax with a vehicle-miles-traveled, or VMT, tax. Readers on gas pumps accessed computers mounted in volunteer participants' cars to download information about how many miles the car had traveled in different tax zones. There was one charge for miles traveled in a zone in and near. Portland and a lower rate for miles driven in other parts of the state. The system didn't keep track of the actual route taken or when the trip was made.

The main problem for those who build and maintain roads is that gas-tax collections have dropped off or stagnated. The poor economy means people are driving less and vehicles are getting better gas mileage. Since 2008, Congress has added billions of dollars in non-gas-tax money to transportation funding to make up for shortfalls in gas-tax revenue. In 2009, the federal stimulus also covered the gap.

In the short run, Congress should increase the gas tax, said Chester Jourdan, executive director of the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, which helps plan transportation projects in central Ohio. A VMT tax is an alternative that should be considered for five to seven years out, he said.

We try to have it both ways: We have a national policy of increasing fuel economy and moving to non-gasoline vehicles and a system for funding highways that depends on fuel consumption. Every major manufacturer will have an electric vehicle out by 2012. These things will be in our communities. We'll have alternative fuel sources like (compressed natural gas) that aren't tied to how we fund highways. The key is to replace the gas tax, not add to it, said Matt Mayer, president of the Buckeye Institute, a conservative research group in Columbus. Ohioans now pay an 18.4-cents-a-gallon federal gasoline tax and a 28-cents-a-gallon state gasoline tax.