While governors debate raising (or eliminating) their states’ gas taxes, buzz is building about mileage-based fees, or a vehicle-miles-traveled charge. A House provision to ban U.S. DOT from studying such a fee has gone away (along with its sponsor), while Rep. Earl Blumenauer is trying to get the Treasury Department to look into how it could work. And a new report from the Government Accountability Office says that would be a good idea.
The House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee requested the report. Subcommittee Chair Tom Latham is dead-set against a VMT fee, as many rural representatives are, fearing that long distances between destinations in the heartland will end up costing them a lot if charged by the mile. Latham should take a look at the GAO’s conclusion: “Mileage-based user fee initiatives in the United States and abroad show that such fees can lead to more equitable and efficient use of roadways by charging drivers based on their actual road use and by providing pricing incentives to reduce road use.”
That’s the first line of the GAO’s 81-page report, and it’s a ringing endorsement of the idea of a mileage-based fee, implying that it is not just a way to collect revenue but also an effective mechanism to make better use of existing roads.
The impetus behind the desire to study VMT fees, of course, is the fact that current receipts don’t match spending levels (which, in turn, don’t match the need) due to the fact that the gas tax hasn’t been raised in 20 years, and fuel-efficient vehicles are consuming less gas. While the gas tax was equal to 17 percent of the cost of a gallon of gas when it was set at its current level in 1993, it is now only 5 percent. The GAO noted that funding for surface transportation is on the agency’s “High Risk List.”
But it’s not all about revenues. The GAO thinks that a VMT fee would also reduce congestion and lead to more efficient roadway use, which in turn could lead to fewer calls for very expensive road-building projects: