A Mileage Tax: A Good Idea If Properly Implemented

By Chris Hagerbaumer of Portland, Oregon. Chris is Deputy Director at Oregon Environmental Council.

This past weekend BlueOregon’s own Kari Chisholm made the eloquent case on PBS NewsHour for raising and indexing the gas tax rather than implementing a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) fee. While I agree that lawmakers are too quick to blame EVs and highly fuel-efficient vehicles for road funding woes (seemingly bucking their responsibility to raise the funds necessary using the tools they already have), I suggest that we not dismiss a VMT fee out of hand.

Alan Greenspan purportedly said, “Whatever you tax, you get less of.” Indeed, taxing gasoline has the positive impact of encouraging people to consume less gas—leading to fewer carbon emissions, less air pollution, increased national security, and other positive outcomes. But taxing miles driven also provides a strong positive signal. A VMT fee would not only reflect more accurately the costs of infrastructure use, congestion, accidents, and some forms of pollution (specifically particulate emissions and highway runoff), but also encourage less driving overall. It’s also a more transparent fee, as Representative Vicki Berger points out in the PBS segment.

For a long time the gas tax has been a very accurate and fair tax that’s relatively easy to administer, but, ultimately, everyone will need to pay for our infrastructure—including drivers of vehicles that consume little or no gasoline—if we hope to keep our roads from falling apart.

Here’s Oregon Environmental Council’s proposal for a fair, individualized road fee system:

I’m proud of Oregon for piloting per-mile fees; it allows the state to work out the kinks and be prepared for the eventuality of a day when the gas tax really won’t suffice. That’s a day that can’t come too soon: We need to drive far cleaner vehicles and far less if we’re going to stem climate change and create great places to live.

P.S. OEC’s 2002 report, Goodbye Gridlock: Improving the Way Oregon Funds Transportation [PDF], is admittedly ancient, but nevertheless still provides relevant transportation finance suggestions.

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