And people who drive big, fuel inefficient cars should pay even more.
Nearly half of Americans think it’s time to rethink how we fund our road infrastructure by switching from a federal gas tax — which theoretically rewards drivers for choosing greener cars, but doesn’t always deter excessive driving itself — and replacing it with a tax based on how many miles drivers actually travel, a new survey says.
The results, which were part of an annual study conducted by the Mineta Transportation Institute, also showed that support for a vehicle mileage traveled tax are reaching record heights. Forty-five percent of respondents said they would prefer a flat mileage fee to a gas tax, while 49 percent said they’d prefer a “green” mileage fee that charges drivers of high-polluting cars a little more, and drivers of more-efficient cars a little less — the highest levels of support the researchers have found in the 10 years since the survey began.
That’s an enormous amount of support for a relatively obscure idea. Vehicle miles traveled taxes are not currently in use in any state in the United States, but several communities have conducted pilot programs to study the idea, including one in California that collected drivers’ mileage information via GPS technology on their cell phones, or on dedicated devices attached to their cars.
Of course, many commercial trucking and “rideshare” companies already use similar apps and devices to collect driver mileage and other information — which could make them a natural candidate for a dedicated VMT tax of their own. Between 52 and 54 percent of respondents to the survey also supported the idea of new mileage fees specifically for taxi companies and delivery vehicles, which are actually empty more than 20 percent of the miles they spend on the road. (Taxi companies like Uber and Lyft are “deadheading” more than 40 percent of the miles they travel).
What’s wrong with the gas tax?
One of the reasons why the Mineta study is so significant is because it could indicate a burgeoning public awareness about our broken road funding system — one which both fails to fund the maintenance of our road network, and also fails to disincentivize excessive driving that has a deadly and expensive impact on society.
The federal gas tax was established in 1956 specifically to fund the Highway Trust Fund, which was supposed to pay for 100 percent of maintenance costs of the national road network in perpetuity. But since 1993, Congress has stubbornly refused to raise that tax to meet climbing costs — even after the Fund went into bankruptcy in 2008. Stagnant tax rates combined with steep rises in construction material prices, decades of constant road building and maintenance obligations, and the advent of the increasingly fuel-efficient and electric cars have combined to create a national fiscal emergency — and today, the Highway Trust Fund runs an average $18-billion deficit every year. The Treasury has largely filled the gap, meaning that taxpayers at large are functionally subsidizing the infrastructure costs of those who drive most.
“The public doesn’t fully recognize how much transportation funding sources have changed in the last 20-plus years,” said Tony Dutzik, senior policy analyst at the Frontier Group. “Most of us, we go to the gas station, we see that we pay a gas tax, we assume that it pays for the roads that we use. But it doesn’t — at least not completely.”
Of course, wear and tear on highways aren’t the only costs to society created by excessive driving — and the gas tax currently commits no money to addressing the expensive externalities of the mode, from accelerating climate change to our ongoing traffic violence epidemic, alongside countless other problems. Experts have long pointed out that the drivers of “green” monstrosities like the electric Hummer (or the wide range of hybrid SUVs that kill a disproportionate number of pedestrians) could save money at the pump when compared to the drivers of safer, smaller cars — savings that could be lessened if the nation switched to a better tax structure.
Hiking the gas tax, of course, could help stabilize the Highway Trust Fund — at least in theory. But many experts argue that just raising gas taxes could backfire in the long run, because high gas taxes are often obscured by low oil prices. Since the gas tax is rolled into the price tag at the pump, any drop in total fuel cost has historically incentivized drivers to hit the road more. And as fuel-efficient cars become a larger share of our national vehicle fleet, total fuel costs per household will go down even further — and so will Highway Trust Fund revenues, without the benefits of actually subtracting any drivers from the roadway.
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