The National Security Agency's conniving with Verizon to reveal the whereabouts of Americans going about their daily business is the cheap stuff. The Obama administration is working on a scheme to install transponders on every automobile, enabling government agencies to track the driving habits of everyone. That's the most innocent interpretation of an offhand remark Ray LaHood, the outgoing secretary of transportation, made to a room full of transportation industry insiders on June 4.
The trade journal Governing took note when someone asked whether the administration would revisit the idea of taxing Americans for every mile they drive. Mr. LaHood, a persistent proponent of the idea, couldn't resist tipping the administration's hand: "The president's going to be big and bold about what his vision is. I'm not going to steal his thunder."
A per-mile tax would turn every street, alley, highway and even your driveway into a toll road. The system would rely on an electronic device to track how far a vehicle travels, where it goes and how long it stays there, uploading the information to a government monitoring station. The driver would be billed accordingly. Mr. LaHood was so enthusiastic about the idea in his first few weeks on the job that the White House had to tell him to shut up. "I can weigh in on it and say that it is not, and will not be, the policy of the Obama administration," Robert Gibbs, the press secretary at the time, said in early 2009.
That was then, and President Obama is "more flexible" now that he's in his second term. Big Brother's big idea has the potential to shake down drivers for billions to pay for the infrastructure spending Mr. Obama promised in his State of the Union speech. Transportation bureaucrats peddle this tax under the myth that the gasoline tax is "broken" and must be "replaced."
A tax is considered "broken" when the people get uppity about it. Drivers feel the price of a tax hike when they drive into a gasoline station, and politicians are attracted to the mileage tax because they're more likely to sneak it into the law with little notice. As with toll roads, a per-mile tax would probably be collected with an E-ZPass-like transponder that automatically takes cash out of a driver's bank or credit card account. In 2007, economists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called this the "E-ZTax," noting that revenue went up by 40 percent when transponders collected the tolls instead of drivers dropping cash into the tollbooth basket.
The bureaucrats say the mileage tax is essential because electric cars, which don't pay any gasoline tax, will soon swarm the roads, depleting national and state treasuries. Given how often the electric-car makers go bankrupt, that's not likely. Americans just don't want to drive golf carts.
The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee last week gave its unanimous approval for Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx to replace Mr. LaHood as transportation secretary. Before the full Senate votes on this nominee, it ought to find out what, exactly, Mr. Obama is up to with another car wreck of a tax.
The Washington Times
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