Would you rather pay by the gallon or by the mile?

Stuck In Traffic by Ed Kant

The other day I came across an interesting article excerpted from the Houston (TX) Chronicle (www.chron.com). It seems that the state legislature in Texas is beginning to warm to the idea of charging a gas tax by the mile rather than by the gallon. This proposal has been tried on a pilot basis in several other states and even Big Bro – Washington, D.C. – is doing some research on whether it makes more sense to charge by the mile driven rather than by the gallon consumed.

Historically, motorists have been paying for the costs of roadways and other motor-vehicle related infrastructure via the gas pump. Here in Collier County, we pay a tax of 66.2¢ per gallon of unleaded fuel. It is slightly more for diesel. Breaking down the total tax paid per gallon, 18.4¢ goes to the feds, 33.2¢ goes to the State of Florida, and 14.6¢ stays here in Collier County. The feds and the state give us about 86¢ back out of every dollar we send in, but Florida is, has been, and will probably continue to be, a “donor” state.

The idea of paying by the mile has been around for a number of years, but has not been fully researched or implemented, except for several pilot programs. Over the past several decades, there has been a sharp rise in the number of vehicle-miles traveled. A vehicle-mile is simply a one-mile trip for any single vehicle, be it a car, truck or motorcycle. If you travel five miles each way to and from work, that trip is ten vehicle-miles, regardless of the number of passengers in the vehicle. One reason this concept is gaining traction is that gas tax revenues are declining even though vehicle-miles traveled are increasing. How can that be? Simple – more fuel efficient vehicles are being driven these days and transit services are seeing a significant increase in ridership.

Is there a likelihood that we will see a mileage-based gas tax replace, or supplement, the current volume (gallons used) based method? It is possible, but first the legislature has to act by providing the legal basis for implementation. Based on recent action, or inaction, by the Florida legislature, we may not see this for several years, but the buzz is out there.
OK, if the possibility of enabling legislation is out there sometime in the future, how shall we implement it? There are a number of very practical issues that must be addressed and I do not want to appear to present this issue in a negative light, but among the most pressing items that I believe need to be addressed are:

• Privacy concerns – how will Big Bro or the state or the County assess your miles driven if they do not have some way of reading your odometer. Do you want them to know where you have been?

• Vehicle concerns – Passenger cars are very different from trucks in their use of most roads and in the ways they are driven. Should a Prius™ be assessed the same tax per mile as an 18-wheel behemoth? What about a Prius™ vs. an SUV for that matter?

• Collection concerns –How shall it be paid for? Do you check your odometer in January and in December and write a check for the mileage difference? Perhaps you send in a monthly payment. Who do you pay? What checks and balances are in the system to assure that no one is trying to cheat?

I am reasonably sure that others can come up with even more questions and concerns.

In a more positive light, a mileage-based tax could not only bring in more revenue, it might also be structured in such a way as to reward those who eschew the short trip for a loaf of bread or the short drive to get the one thing forgotten on a shopping trip. By decreasing the number of short, local trips, we might even see a slight reduction in localized congestion. What might such a concept do to the push for more fuel-efficient vehicles if there is no incentive to use less fuel?

Well, I hope the foregoing has given you some food (or fuel) for thought. You might want to keep an eye out for a new tax appearing somewhere near you in the foreseeable, but not too near-term, future.

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