Remember those Prius drivers filling up at the gas pump next to you? Not only are they likely getting more miles per gallon than you, but they’re also paying less for the use and upkeep of public roads. That’s because gas taxes have been the primary source of federal and state funding for roadway transportation infrastructure construction and repair.
But as all new vehicles have become more fuel efficient, those dollars have subsequently dwindled. And that slice of the transportation budget is projected to grow smaller. Which is one reason U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) has reintroduced a bill that would require the U.S. government to study taxing drivers based on vehicle miles traveled (VMT) instead of how much gas they consume to help refill federal coffers.
The legislation proposes setting up a Road Usage Fee Pilot Program to study a federal VMT payment system. Blumenauer views the bill as a long-term solution for funding highway programs, and he included with it a shorter-term plan to nearly double the federal gas tax, from 18.4 cents to 33.4 cents per gallon.
“As we extend the gas tax, we must also think about how to replace it with something more sustainable,” Blumenauer said. “The best candidate would be the vehicle mile traveled fee being explored by pilot projects in Oregon and implemented there on a voluntary basis next year.”
This isn’t the first time Blumenauer as well as other federal policymakers have proposed a VMT tax to replace paying at the pump. The text of Blumenauer's latest VMT bill, H.R. 3638, isn’t yet available, but the idea is similar to an idea he proposed in a bill last year that called on the Treasury Department to study the viability of a VMT tax.
In 2011, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) also released a study that considered how a federal VMT system would work, calling it a “practical option” for increasing revenue. Like the Oregon pilot program, the CBO proposed that devices could be installed in vehicles to measure how far they have traveled. Unlike the Oregon initiative, it added a feature that allowed the devices to be electronically read at gas stations to deliver tax bills for drivers.
Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood also proposed a VMT tax system in 2009. At the time, the president’s press secretary said that “it is not and will not be the policy of the Obama administration” to adopt a VMT policy to fund federal transportation projects.
But in 2011, the Obama administration itself wrote a legislative proposal for a VMT system that called for the creation of a public affairs office to “increase public awareness regarding the need for an alternative funding source for surface transportation programs and provide information on possible approaches."
Despite the fact that the federal fuel tax hasn’t been raised in over 20 years and funding continues to decline, past VMT proposals have been strongly resisted by conservatives. They’ve also raised concern among privacy advocates as well as common citizens – maybe even that Prius driver filling up next to you – about the government obtaining too much information on the driving habits of Americans.