This Space for Rent

Highway taxes

The state of Oregon, among others, is thinking about putting in a system of pay-per-mile gasoline taxes, where (I guess) you'd need to put some sort of state-authorized metering unit into your car and then periodically stop by at DOT tollbooth to have them read the meter and charge you fees based on how far you drove. Atrios, among others, thinks this is a terrible idea because it's

  1. regressive (flat rate means that poor people pay more of their income to drive) and
  2. will discourage buying fuel-efficient cars (assuming that the state will stop levying gasoline consumption taxes.)

I disagree.

The gasoline sin tax may be a wonderful idea, but people in Imperial America don't pay jack for gasoline taxes; the highways are littered with monster trucks that get as much as 10 miles per gallon, and the people who drive those chromed turds don't seem to care that they're already paying US$100 a week to drive to and from work. Barring jacking up the gasoline sin tax to something noticable (like, say, a large fraction of the cost of gas instead of a dollar add-on; a US$.50 gallon/tax might be noticable when gasoline costs US$.25/gallon, but it fades into the noise when gasoline costs US$1.50/gallon. If the tax was instead the higher of US$.50 or 150% of the price, well, then your US$1.50/gallon gasoline would end up costing you US$3.75, which, judging from the experience of western Europe, would end up doing, um, nothing.)

As for it being regressive, well, sure, it's every bit as regressive as every other fee on the planet; poor people don't tend to be able to afford the new good-milage cars, so they're already stuck paying more to fuel up the cheaper and bad-milage vehicles they're driving, and from my recent experience of being poor the insurance costs don't drop one cent when you go from a US$70,000/year job to US$20,000/year unemployment to US$0/year ran-out-of-employment (and it doesn't go up when you then go back to an upper middle class 6-figure job.)

The United States has restructured itself so that unless you're fortunate enough to live in a big city (Portland, Oregon, despite having a very good transit system for a medium-sized city, is still a medium-sized city and you have to be very choosy picking your job and home to be able to take full advantage of the bus and streetcar system; it took me 7 years and 3 jobs before I could get a 10 minute single-seat ride from home to work, and I'm still stuck on a bus route that drops to 30 minute headways at the drop of a dime) you need a car. So the roads need to be maintained, which means they need to be paid for. A per-mile tax, though it's kind of clumsy, is better than a gasoline sin tax, because it charges you for the amount of use you get from the roads, which, no matter how energy efficient your vehicle is, you'll still end up causing wear on the roads as you drive too and from the festival of nepotism that is the American economy.

I don't think we should have gasoline taxes at all. I think that automobiles should pay a milage tax that's modified by the weight of the vehicle and the time of day that the milage was done. At least in Oregon, cars need to have emissions tests, so you could modify the milage tax based on the emissions from a car (currently, if your car doesn't pass the emissions test, you have to either buy a special high-emissions temporary license or stop using the car; judging from the number of old clunker cars I see with those special licenses, the emissions test is not means-based.)

A clever version of this tax (which would need GPS units) would be to split the revenues up between the feds (for interstate highways), the state (state highways), and the counties, and let the state and the counties raise and lower the tax as needed. To make this work, you'd have to pass laws forbidding any other source of funding for roadwork (otherwise what would happen is what's happening now; states and municipalities would end up transferring funds from other tax sources) and also forbidding making a intrastate road part of the interstate system (Hawaii interstate highways H1,H2,and H3 are lovely interstates, but they don't even cross a county line, let alone a state line), so if you wanted to repair the road you'd have to go to the road tax fund and if it wasn't there, well, either the road tax fund could issue bonds, raise the tax, or let the roads deteriorate.

I do not think that a scheme like this would end up damaging rural areas, either. Before the state started the socialist project of roads for everyone, many railroads made money off their little branchlines out into rural areas. I do not believe that the state is less efficient than a railroad; if a trolley line could make money hauling passengers and freight from one dinky little burg to another, tolls can pay for a road that people use to drive between those same towns.