Road Funding Depends Heavily Upon A Declining Base of Fuel Taxes
At present, most highway funding in Iowa comes from fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees. The same is true for most other states. This condition will inevitably have to change, for a number of reasons:
- Gasoline-powered cars are being replaced with hybrid and non-fossil-fueled vehicles. While hybrid vehicles may not be the best solution to environmental concerns, they are being pushed by public-interest lobbies and are being mandated by law in California.
- Fuel efficiencies in conventional-fuel vehicles continue to improve dramatically enough to measurably reduce available road use funds.
Oregon is initiating an approach to the next generation of taxation by planning a 2005 program to install transponders in private vehicles in order to charge them a per-mile tax rather than charging them at the pump. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has nominated a new California DMV head who has backed a similar proposal.
The Methods Proposed for Collecting Per-Use Taxes in Some States Are Obtrusive and Create a Privacy Concern
The problem with both the Oregon plan (which uses GPS tracking to report the vehicle's mileage back to the state) and other proposals (like one that would use a transmitter to report odometer readings at the pump) is that they open the door to extremely serious privacy issues. It doesn't take a vast amount of paranoia for one to be concerned about the government owning a database of every vehicle's location and travel habits, or worse, to have real-time tracking of every vehicle on the road.
However, Per-Mile Taxes Are Still Probably Best
But a per-mile tax obeys one very reasonable principle of taxation: That taxes should be collected closest to where they are spent. Significant hikes in vehicle registration fees would disproportionately punish drivers who don't drive very much, as well as causing big market distortions as they already do in Europe. High vehicle registration fees would tend to be highly regressive, since the poor pay the same per-vehicle fee as the wealthy.
How to Collect a Per-Mile Tax Without the Privacy Hassle
How, then, could a per-mile tax be assessed efficiently without raising serious privacy concerns? Perhaps the easiest method would require a once-a-year visit to the state Department of Transportation for a simple odometer reading. Each vehicle would then be taxed based on the number of miles driven, times a factor that would assess the wear and environmental damage caused by that vehicle. Heavy trucks, for instance, would pay a factor higher than lightweight hybrid passenger cars.
How to Make It Fair to Each State
But what of the fact that many miles may be driven outside of a vehicle's home state? Simply this: Each state would collect the tax according to a uniform formula above. Then the Federal government would be charged with redistributing the tax dollars according to another simple formula: The square root of the state's population times its total number of federally-funded road miles.
|Nebraska||2,978 Federal road miles||1,739,291 people|
|New Jersey||2,073 Federal road miles||8,638,396 people|
It's a Far Better Plan than the Alternatives
Tax per vehicle = ( * )
Total taxes collected per state = ∑(all registered vehicles) ( * )
Taxes to be distributed per state =
∑(taxes nationwide) * ( * )
∑all states ( * )
Simple. Reasonably fair. Efficient. Unobtrusive. And the only Federal role is to count the money taken in and send it right back to the states. Can anyone offer an alternative that doesn't smack of neo-Ludditism that makes more sense? Certainly, methods for collection might have to be flexible to allow vehicle users to spread their payments out over the course of a year, but mechanisms like that already exist (think mortgage escrow plans that collect for property taxes by a little each month). And nothing about it prohibits individual states from enacting other methods of collecting taxes to pay for non-Federal roads. In fact, the same model could be simultaneously applied on the state and local level in order to deliver a simple, comprehensive funding mechanism.