Infrastructure Urgency, Part 3: NMA E-Newsletter #662

Layered levels of taxation are nothing new to motorists. The gas tax, road tolls, congestion pricing, registration fees, and even wheel taxes are commonplace. Congress is looking at us hungrily again as being ripe for the picking as it debates the final details of desperately needed transportation infrastructure funding.

The idea is not new. In fact, the NMA has editorialized against the mileage-based road user fee many times in the past, more commonly known today as a vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT) tax. The concept has never entirely gone away, and now it is mentioned prominently in both the House and Senate infrastructure packages.

The $3.5 trillion House “Invest in America” plan would require the Comptroller General of the United States to “carry out a study on the impact of equity issues associated with per-mile user fee funding systems on the surface transportation system.”

The Senate bipartisan bill, with a $1.2 trillion budget currently, is even bolder. The title of Section 13001 of the bill gives it away: Strategic Innovation for Revenue Collection. It would direct the U.S. Transportation Secretary to “establish a program to test the feasibility of a road usage fee and other user-based alternative revenue mechanisms . . . to help maintain the long-term solvency of the Highway Trust Fund, through pilot projects at the State, local and regional level.” One of the stated objectives is “to consider, to the greatest extent practicable, the potential for revenue collection along a network of alternative funding stations.”

In other words, if 13001 is part of the infrastructure plan signed into law, the X painted on the backs—really the wallets—of motorists by the government will become an even more enticing target.

It is going to take all of us contacting the members of the House and Senate Transportation & Infrastructure Committees to get their attention on this issue. Here are the committee rosters and contact information:

Senate Transportation & Infrastructure Subcommittee

House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee

After the following NMA email detailing our concern about VMT programs was sent to the legislative directors of each of those members, an aide for Congresswoman Michelle Steel (CA-48) responded by saying that his boss was in full agreement with the NMA position. She submitted an amendment to H.R. 3684 that would strike all VMT language from the House bill. Unfortunately, House leadership designated the bill as a closed rule not subject to amendments. Nevertheless, the NMA has made a connection with Rep. Steel, a potential ally on other motorist issues from the country’s most populous state.

NMA August 30th/31st Email to Senate and House Top T&I Aides
H.R. 3684 Infrastructure Bills: Concerns of the Motoring Public, Part 4 – Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) Tax

Dear Dixon,

Section 13001 of the infrastructure bill would provide $125 million in funding for pilot programs to explore methods of levying road-usage taxes on drivers. The VMT (vehicle miles traveled) tax has been bandied about for many years as a replacement for the established per-gallon gas tax, or even as an add-on tax to the revenue already collected at the gas pump.

We urge Senator Inhofe to oppose the funding of VMT pilot programs. It is telling that the arguments supporting our recommendation are as applicable now as they were a few years ago when the following NMA op-ed was published by The Ripon Society think-tank in its February 2015 Forum. The editorial takes 2 to 3 minutes to read, and it sums up why a properly adjusted gas tax is a more efficient and equitable (and less intrusive) system of charging drivers for the maintenance and improvements of our nation’s roads and bridges.

The Mileage-Based User Fee: At what cost?
By Gary Biller, NMA President

     Rarely is a problem best solved by adding layers of complexity to an existing process, particularly a budgetary process. Such is the proposal to supplement or replace the fuel tax with a mileage-based user fee to pull the Federal Highway Trust Fund back from the teetering edge of insolvency.

     The real problem with the Trust Fund is how the money is being spent, more so than with how it is being collected from road users. While the nation’s roads and bridges decline further into disrepair, those who constitute the Washington D.C. political establishment continue to fiddle. 

     In the 2007 report, “Paying at the Pump: Gasoline Taxes in America,” Jonathan Williams (then of the Tax Foundation) wrote, “. . . current federal highway legislation authorized over 6,000 earmarks from the Highway Trust Fund. Some of these went to legitimate transportation programs, but others were earmarked for items such as the infamous ‘Bridge to Nowhere.’ Today, gasoline tax revenue is spend on everything from public education and museums to graffiti removal and parking garages.”

      At about the same time, the Transportation Review Board noted in its “Special Report 285” that, two years earlier, the federal government collected $107 billion in highway user fees, with the majority being generated from gas tax revenue. The TRB reported that only $85 billion of that total was devoted to highway spending.

      The Trust Fund allocation process is little better today. Any discussion about the effectiveness of the fuel tax vs. a mileage-based user fee needs to start there, because any revenue collection method will be saddled with the same systemic problem. If only our legislators had the political will and self-discipline to limit the incessant earmarking of transportation funds for non-highway projects.

      That being said, the fuel tax is the simplest, most equitable method of charging motorists for the maintenance of our highway infrastructure. Heavier, less fuel-efficient vehicles contribute more to road wear and tear than do smaller passenger vehicles and motorcycles, but by virtue of higher fuel consumption their owners also pay more toward the Trust Fund.

      A mileage-based user fee requires tracking of actual vehicle miles traveled. Recording the mileage is an added data collection step, either through periodic odometer inspections or by a much more intrusive GPS-based tracking system that monitors the whereabouts of each vehicle at all times. The GPS method opens the door for creative traffic management schemes such as charging drivers more per mile when they are navigating through congested traffic zones. Urban planning by way of social engineering. No thank you.

      Whether the mileage-based fee is determined by reading odometers or through uploaded tracking information, it does not apportion cost based on the road maintenance caused by specific vehicles that is a hallmark of the fuel tax. Instead, the tax per vehicle mile would ostensibly be the same for an 18-wheel tractor-trailer as it would for a motorcycle; all this at the cost of introducing a new revenue collection system (and requisite overhead) to monitor and collect road user fees based on the distance vs. time profile of each vehicle.

      Critics of the fuel tax point to electric cars and gas/electric hybrids as not consuming enough fuel to contribute their fair share to the Trust Fund. Through late 2014, 3.8 million plug-in electric and hybrid vehicles have been sold in the U.S. since introduction. That constitutes only 1.5 percent of the nation’s motorized traffic today. [Note: Seven years later in 2021 that number is just slightly over 2 percent.] These vehicles are not part of the Trust Fund’s solvency issues and likely won’t be for several more years. If need be, owners of electric vehicles can be charged an assessment based on average miles traveled to make their contribution to the Trust Fund more equitable.

      Index the federal fuel tax to inflation if you must. (The last adjustment to the per-gallon tax was over 20 years ago.) But do not take the existing and inherently fair method of charging drivers for highway use by vehicle fuel consumption and complicate it with a mileage-based user fee that adds new levels of cost, bureaucracy, and privacy concerns.

A primary concern of motorists, besides the tracking implications of VMT tax collection systems, is that government will see a lucrative new revenue stream to tack on top of the existing fuel tax. Double taxation would unfairly burden motorists, many of whom already struggle with the necessity of driving to maintain employment and make ends meet for their families.

Please ask Senator Inhofe to give careful consideration to the inherent problems associated with a vehicle-miles-traveled tax initiative. The funding of VMT pilot programs as proposed in the infrastructure bill should be opposed on behalf of all motorists who already pay their fair share for maintaining surface transportation systems.

Thank you,

Gary Biller

National Motorists Association
Empowering drivers since 1982!

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