Fifty-state ‘Vehicle Miles Traveled’ tax/fee/charge study proposed

BlumenauerWill your vehicle one day feel like a taxi cab?

Oregon Democrat representative Earl Blumenauer has introduced legislation that would fund a 50-state Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) pilot program to examine a new source of highway funding.  The legislation calls on the Secretary of the Treasury to undertake a series of studies to demonstrate the viability of a VMT revenue source in every state.

Blumenauer, one of those rare members of the House that may actually have earned the title ‘maverick’, basically argues that the bill is an inevitable reaction to the dwindling revenues of the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) that is the core of our highway funding.

A gas tax that was last adjusted last century and increasing fuel efficiency mean the HTF will face a steady revenue decline over the next two decades (if it lasts that long). And, as Blumenauer points out, VMT studies in Oregon have been more than promising. (He also asks the Treasury Secretary to look at other options for increasing HTF revenues.)

“We must invest now in our nation’s roads, bridges, and public transit to prevent enormous costs in the future,” said Rep. Blumenauer. “With the Highway Trust Fund facing a 21% reduction revenue by 2040, based on current driving patterns and projected increases in fuel economy, we need innovative solutions to close this gap.”

And as the man from Oregon points out, over the past four years, Congress has transferred over $48 billion from the General Fund into the Highway Trust Fund.  Estimates suggest that, when the current transportation authorization expires, the HTF will require almost $15 billion a year in addition to current gas tax receipts simply to maintain 2009 funding levels.

So, one way to go is to charge motorists based on the miles they drive. How much and how to do it are still debates not close to being put out there on the table.

The move with this piece of legislation however is a surprise. Not because it is not obvious, in fact it’s a ‘duh’, but because someone finally did it. We are in year four or five of  people in power and other people in Washington bemoaning the falling HTF revenue and calling for new fund sources to be found … then disappearing into the fog and haze of DC before ever making a concrete suggestion of what that might be. So, thanks to Earl Blumenauer for making the move. Let’s hope we see a bipartisan groundswell of support rather than more fog from Foggy Bottom.

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Either way we will see some wonderful semantic gymnastics. Blumanauer goes so far as to call it a VMT “charge”, but is it a fee, a tax, a charge, a surcharge, a toll or something else.  Somehow those DC politicians have to find a word they can live with, and it’s not a trivial exercise.