Thursday, March 12, 2009

"Do we really want government using global positioning systems to track how many miles we drive and perhaps where we drive?"

If more transportation taxes are needed, put them on gasoline rather than mileage


Fort Worth Star-Telegrm
Copyright 2009

We’ll freely admit it — we don’t get it.

We can’t understand why some members of Congress are enthusiastic about switching from a federal gasoline tax to a "mileage tax" that would tax people based on how many miles they drive.

Imposing a mileage tax might require an expensive investment in equipment and a new state-by-state regulatory bureaucracy, with costs potentially totaling hundreds of dollars per vehicle.

There’s also a privacy question. Do we really want government using global positioning systems to track how many miles we drive and perhaps where we drive?

Even U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who contends that a mileage tax is "the way to go," balks at the thought of a "Big Brother system tracking your every move," according to an Associated Press report.

Her suggested remedy, however, is an honor system in which drivers would certify the number of miles they drive each year.

Yeah, right.

In today’s squeaky-clean world, we undoubtedly can trust each and all to report mileage honestly — just as we can trust everyone not to cheat on their income taxes or engage in fraudulent investment schemes.

We’ll check with Bernard Madoff on what he thinks about Boxer’s idea and get back with you, OK?

With more money needed for transportation funding, a preferable approach would be one that the Star-Telegram Editorial Board has urged for years — raising state and federal gasoline taxes.

The federal tax of 18.4 cents a gallon hasn’t been raised since 1993. Texas’ 20-cent tax hasn’t changed since 1991. Inflation has ravaged the buying power of both.

A higher gas tax encourages people to buy more fuel-efficient vehicles and use public transit, thus reducing reliance on foreign oil and curbing air pollution. The more gas consumed, the more gas tax one pays per mile driven.

But a pure mileage tax on a vehicle driven 15,000 miles a year would be the same for both a big SUV getting only 15 miles per gallon and a little hybrid attaining 45 mpg.

A simple, low-cost and easily administered system is already in place to collect gas taxes. The same can’t be said for the mileage tax.

To help ensure adequate transportation funding, two national commissions have in the past 16 months recommended sizable increases in the federal gas tax (one recently urging raising it 10 cents a gallon, the other recommending in December 2007 that it be upped 25 to 40 cents over five years and indexed for inflation).

Both commissions suggested that a mileage tax could replace a gas tax if the latter is rendered inadequate as a result of greatly improved fuel efficiency and a switch to alternative vehicles such as electric cars.

But those changes are likely to occur over the next several decades.

A mileage tax might (or might not) be a workable long-term alternative, but higher gas taxes are a greatly preferable approach for the foreseeable future. We’ll also need to build some additional toll roads, but Texans have made it clear that they don’t want too many.

With the U.S. economy in tatters, there could be heavy opposition to raising gas taxes now.

But once the economy recovers, elevating gas taxes clearly is preferable to imposing a mileage tax.

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