An endangered species – a market-friendly idea – was spotted recently in an interview with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood: The Obama appointee is considering replacing gasoline taxes with a tax on vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT) as a means to fund highway and transportation infrastructure maintenance. He asserts that this kind of “outside the box” thinking will typify the Obama administration’s initiatives (Something to be devoutly hoped for).
If they actually replace the gas tax with a VMT tax, rather than piling on, it would be a great improvement in terms of infrastructure maintenance, as a person’s impact on highway infrastructure is proportional to miles-driven, rather than gasoline consumed. A gas-guzzler driving 1,000 miles does the same damage to the highway as a fuel-sipper that drives 1,000 miles, unless they are radically different in weight class. Heavy trucks, those used to transport most of the nation’s goods, are even harder on the surface of roadways.
Taxing VMT is a step toward a user fee for roadways, which is an idea long championed by market-oriented transportation analysts. Better still would be to have those taxes collected locally, by a private entity, which has the responsibility for maintaining good performance of a given stretch of highway. Of course, it’s rather unlikely that the word “privatization” will be permitted to leave the lips of anyone in the Obama administration, but a person can dream.
There are legitimate concerns about privacy, as the scheme involves having a GPS transponder record one’s mileage. In theory this can be done without actually recording where a person goes, and diligence on the part of civil libertarians will be needed to ensure that the system is limited to furnishing a mileage count, and not a route map. Police departments, always on the look out for more Orwellian tools to track people’s lives are the big threat here. On the other hand, with surveillance cameras everywhere, it’s only a matter of time before they just LoJack everyone, as in the very under-appreciated anti-authoritarian movie Demolition Man.