As if you didn’t have enough, here’s a new acronym for you to remember, VMT. Read that as the Vehicle Miles Traveled tax. Our crumbling highway infrastructure has taken a large hit in the last couple of years. Due to higher gas prices, the global recession and more fuel-efficient vehicles, receipts from the gasoline tax, the primary vehicle for funding highway repair and maintenance have been drastically reduced. The National Surface Transportation Finance Commission, a congressionally created panel, recommended a vehicle mileage tax to replace the current gas tax, now at 18.4 cents per gallon, which hasn’t gone up since 1993. Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood has also touted the idea and on Thursday,Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee again endorsed the concept of a VMT.
There are many problems with a VMT and the Obama administration has said that “it is not and will not be the policy of the Obama administration”. They have not, however, put forth any alternatives and the idea of a mileage tax seems to be gaining ground. It has resulted in pilot programs in Oregon, Idaho, Rhode Island and North Carolina. The basic idea is that you would have a GPS device in your car that would track the miles driven. When you pull up to the gas pump, the device would wirelessly communicate with the pump and add a tax based on your mileage. From the pilot projects, the technology seems to work but it has raised concerns over privacy, unfairly taxing rural residents and being a disincentive to fuel-efficient vehicles.
In Montana we pay an extra 28 cents per gallon on top of the federal 18 cents in federal gas tax. One of the problems with changing to a mileage tax is that it’s a long ways to anywhere in the wilds of the Treasure State. Montana folks who live in, say Ingomar, may have to drive to Miles City for groceries or to Billings for medical care and that puts a lot of miles on a vehicle in a very short time. People who live in Butte, however, may only drive two miles to the IGA. Fears also arise about the Feds tracking where you drive through a mysterious black box on your dashboard. Proponents say that privacy issues can be mitigated, but this is Montana after all and we are born paranoid. There is also concern that owners of a Prius will pay the same tax per mile as the owner of a Hummer, so there is really less incentive to get by on less fuel. How it will all shake out is still up in the air, but what is evident is that we have to figure out a way to mitigate the falling revenue that keeps our highways in shape. It may turn out to be an increase in the gas tax, a VMT or some other, as yet to be determined, solution but make no mistake, we will have to pay the piper one way or another.