Realizing that proposals to increase the gasoline tax would be as popular as...well, as popular as raising the gasoline tax, the US States of Oregon, Washington, and possibly California, are experimenting with GPS tracking systems that will allow them to substitute a mileage-based tax for the common gasoline volume-based tax. Apparently, the US-Department of Transportation is providing grant support for these experimental approaches, seemingly based on the notion that it will help reduce road maintenance costs and regain lost tax revenues. Worried about losing highway funds because consumers are buying more efficient vehicles, the States are experimenting with a "...global positioning system to track miles driven, using a black box to calculate how many miles are clocked in-state, out of state and during rush hour". Require car owners to install the GPS systems, and the states could make up for tax revenues 'lost to more efficient transportation'. Now we get it. By eliminating the gas tax, they'd be budget heroes, and keep the roads repaired! But more than that is on the table.
If the system were fully implemented, the government would: have the theoretical ability for instantaneous speed monitoring (just a court order away); a prospective knowledge of who went where when and how they got there (awaiting a subpoena); have reduced some of the new incentives to own a high mileage vehicle; and, discriminated against people who, by virtue of living out in the countryside, have a long drive to get supplies or commute to work. Meanwhile, people are in denial over Peak Oil and geopolitical instability rapidly driving up fuel prices and eventually raising state gas tax revenues (it's a percentage based levy).
As a rule of thumb, the larger the vehicle, the worse the mileage, and the greater the force exerted on the roads. Therefore, big vehicles emit more pollutants and cause more road wear, requiring greater expenditure of highway maintenance funds and increased health care budgets. What a straight distance-taxing proposal would do is off-load some of the responsibility for paying for pollution and highway repair from trucks and SUV's, putting it on the small car owner, or the hybrid vehicle owner.
It would be a form of social engineering that might force people to live in denser communities over the long term. Not all bad from a TreeHugger point of view. Also on the good side, whoever gets the contract to install the millions of tracking devices and the software is going to be very happy.
On the bad side: it's a virtual toll booth that would follow you around wherever you go. And, obviously, if the metric were purely distance, it would do little, on average, to conserve oil and mitigate climate change.
Like the bricks and mortar toll booth, it's the sort of solution that politicians choose when they lack the courage to up the gas tax. There is a way, calling for some courage, however, to counter many of the drawbacks of a straight mileage based levy. States taxing authorities could weight the miles traveled with multipliers for vehicle mass and efficiency, or even for time of day. That'd restore some balance toward reducing congestion, and encouraging fuel conservation and climate protection; but, it might also make the next Election Day a transformative experience for the "heroes".
As close observers of alternative transportation, we doubt that that States' gas tax revenues are falling primarily from increased mass transit use, walking, bicycling, and hybrid car driving. Although we wish the supposition were true, the principal cause is probably that people are driving less in response to high fuel prices. And, if it were true that more efficient transportation was the main cause of falling state tax revenues, what is next? A GPS on every bike?
Lest there be any uncertainty: this is not an April Fools story.
Thanks to Andrew Krause for the tip