- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

The Obama administration is considering taxing motorists on how many miles they drive, the so-called VMT or vehicle mileage tax.

Currently, federal highway construction is financed by a gas tax paid into a highway trust fund, but Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told the Associated Press that the fund “is an antiquated system for funding our highways.” Mr. LaHood, along with several states, is considering moving to a VMT.

Maybe this is a good idea, but Congress should view it with considerable skepticism.

The gas tax is sensitive to both the oil prices and the economy. When gas prices go up or the economy worsens, motorists drive less and trust-fund receipts drop. Last year, when we had both high prices and a bad economy, Congress had to approve $8 billion to make up for the shortfall to the fund.

But a use tax like the VMT would be no less sensitive than the consumption tax. In times of high prices and belt-tightening, motorists would drive less and the income from the mileage tax would fall.

And the consumer is not being paranoid in thinking that a VMT would not be in place of the federal gas tax but in addition to. Initially, a VMT would be small - North Carolina is considering a quarter-cent per mile - but these are precisely the taxes most easy to raise.

Still, if we want good roads and bridges, the money has to come from somewhere, and the gas tax and VMT would be paid by the people who benefit most. But there are other, potentially more serious issues as well.

The AP says a blue-ribbon panel will shortly recommend that all cars and trucks be equipped with GPS technology, transponders and clocks to show not only how many miles the car was driven but where and at what time.

This is a step toward not only congestion pricing - charging motorists more for driving during rush hour and driving in city centers - but keeping track of every motorist’s movements. Freedom of mobility - the right of the average citizen to go where he wants, when he wants - has always been one of this country’s real blessings.

A further drawback to the VMT is that it would fall unevenly. A motorist seeking to minimize high gas prices can always switch to a high-mileage vehicle. A motorist confronting the VMT cannot reduce the driving distance to Florida or the Grand Canyon by moving them closer.

Dale McFeatters is an editor for Scripps Howard News Service.

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