Last week brought with it a flurry of news stories discussing the issue of how to pay for transportation infrastructure. This topic is never too far from the agenda in statehouses across the country, in large part because most states fund their infrastructures primarily with a fixed-rate gasoline tax (levied as a specific number of cents per gallon) which inevitably becomes inadequate over time as inflation erodes the value of that tax rate. What's more, with fuel efficiency becoming an increasingly important criterion in Americans' car-buying decisions, drivers are able to travel the same distance while purchasing less gasoline, and paying less in gasoline taxes.
With all this in mind, Mississippi's top transportation official last week publicly stated that the state's lawmakers need to increase their flat 18.5 cent per gallon gas tax rate. As evidence of this need, the official also noted that 25% of the state's bridges are deficient.
In a similar vein, one recent op-ed in Michigan called for increasing the state's gas tax and restructuring it to prevent it from continually losing its value due to inflation. Another op-ed ran in the same paper that day, this one written by the President of the Michigan Petroleum Association, insisting that the state eliminate the gas tax altogether and pay for the lost revenue with increased sales taxes. The most obvious flaw with this plan is that it would shift the responsibility for paying taxes away from long-distance commuters and those owners of heavier (and generally less fuel-efficient) vehicles -- despite the fact that these are precisely the people who benefit most from the government's provision of roads.
More news coverage of the transportation issue came out of South Dakota last week, where a committee of legislators is currently in search of additional revenue to plug the hole created by predictably sluggish gas tax revenues. While some have expressed an interest in raising the gas tax, others have suggested replacing it entirely with hugely increased licensing fees. But licensing fees are not as capable as the gas tax in charging frequent and long-distance drivers for the roads they use.
The best way to ensure that those drivers pay for the roads they use, however, is to simply levy a tax on each mile they drive (known as a "vehicle miles traveled" tax, or VMT). While the idea has yet to be implemented in practice in the U.S., recent coverage of a pilot project involving 1,500 drivers in New Mexico shows that such a tax is a very real possibility in the future. Basically, a small computer is installed in each car which keeps track of the number of miles driven. That information is then reported to the tax collection agency, and the driver is sent a bill.
This method avoids the scenario in which drivers of vehicles of similar weights (which produce similar wear-and-tear on any given road) can end up with vastly different gas tax bills due differences in fuel efficiency. Interestingly, this new study is examining a system that would allow the computer to know which state somebody is driving in, so that the correct amount of tax can be paid to the correct state. Unsurprisingly, despite the public finance appeal of this method, privacy concerns remain a major obstacle to implementation.