Blumenauer Endorses Vehicle-Mile Fees

Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) has introduced a bill directing the Department of Transportation to start vehicle-mile fee pilot programs in every state and authorizing $150 million to fund the program. Since privacy is a major concern for many people, Blumenauer’s bill wisely makes protection of personal privacy a top priority of the program.

Oregon’s bicycle-riding, bow-tie-wearing member of Congress.

Blumenauer’s support for vehicle-mile fees is refreshing considering that, during the last Congress, the House passed a bill forbidding the Department of Transportation from even studying the possibility of such fees. (Fortunately, the otherwise-conservative member of Congress who introduced that bill ended up being a one-term congressman.) But Blumenauer’s stance also has some questioning his motives as he is a major advocate of smart growth and rail transit.

In introducing the bill, Blumenauer noted that, over the past four years, Congress has had to transfer $48 billion in general funds to the Highway Trust Fund, and is currently spending $15 billion a year more on surface transportation than is coming in from gas taxes and other highway user fees. The Oregon representative obviously hopes vehicle-mile fees will help close the gap, allowing him and his colleagues to continue funneling billions of dollars into rail transit and other forms of travel that the Antiplanner considers to be obsolete.

Of course, Congress could also close the gap by just spending no more money than it takes in. As it happens, the annual deficits are roughly equal to the amount that Congress diverts to non-highway projects, so it is not that highways aren’t paying for themselves; they just aren’t paying for the pork Congress wants on top of roads. It is ironic if not hypocritical for smart-growth advocates to insist on diverting billions of dollars from gas taxes to transit and other non-highway programs, and then proclaim that such deficit spending proves that highways are subsidized.

Rather than a way for Congress to have more pork barrel, the Antiplanner sees vehicle-mile fees as a natural path towards devolving transportation funding to state and local areas. The only real justification for a federal gas tax is that the federal government has an inexpensive way to collect this form of user fees: it collects the tax straight from refineries and importers long before it reaches your local gas station. With vehicle-mile fees, the revenues can go straight to the road owners–meaning states, counties, cities, and in a few cases private owners–thus cutting out the need to have the federal government as a middle-man.

Obviously, Blumenauer doesn’t see it that way. But the Antiplanner still welcomes his support for vehicle-mile fees. Once we get people over the hump of accepting a shift from gas taxes to vehicle-miles fees, then we can argue about what level of government collects them and how to make sure they are spent where they are most needed.

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16 thoughts on “Blumenauer Endorses Vehicle-Mile Fees

  1. rmsykes

    The gasoline tax already is a vehicle mileage fee, and it has the benefit of penalizing low-gas-mileage vehicles. So why do you what yet another fee, and a fee that requires monitoring of each drivers location second by second. Frankly, I find this extremely offensive, and I think it is a 4th Amendment violation.

    The fee also requires a major investment in hardware by both the government and individuals and a substantial additional staff. On this topic, you are a full-blown socialist of the Obama type.

  2. bennett

    A couple of thoughts particularly in response to rmsykes. I believe Mr. O’Toole is suggesting that VMT fees replace the gas tax not that we have both.

    Also, I do not think that some sort of tracking device is needed. Why not just have a federal inspection every year where all you do is look at the odometer? You can even levy the fee right then and there. Almost every state (not all) has yearly inspections required anyway. Sure, people who don’t drive on highways will still be subsidizing those that do and local roads will still have to be funded out of other subsidies (or privatized as some have suggested), but it will result in a better “user” fee than the gas tax. Somebody posted a stat re: this topic a few months ago that 2% of gasoline in the US doesn’t even go to automobiles. This is a solution that will nip that inequity in the bud.

  3. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote:

    Blumenauer’s support for vehicle-mile fees is refreshing considering that, during the last Congress, the House passed a bill forbidding the Department of Transportation from even studying the possibility of such fees. (Fortunately, the otherwise-conservative member of Congress who introduced that bill ended up being a one-term congressman.) But Blumenauer’s stance also has some questioning his motives as he is a major advocate of smart growth and rail transit.

    If VMT charging ends up being the “stable source of funding” to construct massive (and massively expensive) new passenger rail projects that some municipal and county elected officials desire (but should not be built), then it is likely to fail, and set the idea of VMT charges back by decades.

  4. The Antiplanner Post author

    Frank,

    Another way of calculating the average cost: Americans drive about 2.9 trillion vehicle miles a year. If the cost of building, maintaining, and operating highways is a generous $200 billion a year, that’s an average of about 6.8 cents per vehicle mile. (Of course, trucks should pay more; some light-weight vehicles might pay less.)

    On the other hand, the $7 cost of rail transit per trip is only the operating cost. Adding capital costs would probably double it, at least in Seattle’s case (which is the number Frank used).

  5. the highwayman

    Also another problem with libertarian political mathematics is that numbers count and don’t count at the same time. It doesn’t matter if 5 cars or 500 cars drive by my house in a day, the street is there by default.

  6. Sandy Teal

    I don’t get this incessant debate on this discussion board. How do you think a house gets built? How does all the material get to the site? How do all the workers get to the site? How do all the utilities get the site?

    If a home is built without a road to it , it is called a “cabin”.

  7. MJ

    Also another problem with libertarian political mathematics is that numbers count and don’t count at the same time. It doesn’t matter if 5 cars or 500 cars drive by my house in a day, the street is there by default.

    Let’s try to unwind this pretzel logic, shall we? You suggest that local roads exist irrespective of traffic volume. Well, this is true of all roads, to some extent. Yet, by the same token, most of the cost of local roads are fixed. Hence it makes sense to finance them with property taxes, special assessments, or other fixed charges. Of course, this leads many people to suggest that these roads are “subsidized”. So which is it? Should they be paid for with fixed charges or with variable charges (i.e. gas taxes or VMT fees)?

  8. Frank

    Your warped, OCD/Aspergers/limited interest/choo-choo-happy version of “reality.”

    You’ve been provided with studies and logic, but your diseased mind can’t process them.

    Now get out of your step mom’s house and try to get laid. Remember: Don’t talk about choo choo trains on your first date. And don’t take her to your “work” where you play with toy choo choo trains.

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