Letter from Pennsylvania: Taxed by the Mile, Not by the Gallon of Gas?

Whether it is a public policy idea whose time has come remains to be seen. But it is, in the least, worthy of serious study. But would Western Pennsylvanians embrace such a concept?

We refer to word out of Eastern Pennsylvania that researchers will begin a federally funded $1.2 million study to investigate the viability of a mileage-based highway tax system to pay for highway infrastructure.

What’s prompting such a study in the Keystone State, and what led to previous studies elsewhere, is two-fold.

First, modern vehicles with better fuel mileage use less gasoline and diesel. Which means less money is being collected in fuel taxes at the pump. Which is how much of America’s highway system has been maintained for the last century.

Second, forays into alternative-fuel vehicles – electric, primarily, but also hydrogen fuel cells (and should either, or both, gain mass acceptance) — also would cut into gasoline and diesel fuel taxes.

As pennlive.com reported last week, “a very limited test of a mileage-based fee will take place in Pennsylvania and Delaware in the Interstate 95 corridor. A group called “The I-95 Corridor Coalition,” a multi-state partnership of transportation agencies and related groups is spearheading the research project.

To its credit, the coalition says is it not endorsing such a user fee but does deem it worthy of investigation. Thus, it is refreshing to see a prospective study without a preconceived conclusion, as too many government-funded “studies” begin.

So, is a mileage-based highway tax system a good and/or a reasonable idea? Would the motoring public accept such a change?

A year ago, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) offered a quite balanced overview. It noted that taxes could be based on a flat cent-per-mile charge. Or they could be based on GPS (global positioning system) data. They even might be still charged at the pump.

And, indeed, researchers note that charging highway uses by the mile could end up being an incentive to drive less, driving down collected revenues.

Implementation of a mileage-based road user charge would have to overcome other challenges, as well, CRS researchers Robert Kirk and Marc Levinson wrote in their June 2016 study.

There are privacy concerns; think of that GPS tracking.

There would be higher public costs to establish, collect and enforce such a new tax regimen; Kirk and Levinson say estimates range from 5 percent to 13 percent of collections. (Another study, by the Government Accountability Office, suggests a range of from 8 percent to 33 percent of collections.)

The billing process, itself, given the size of the private vehicle fleet (estimated then at 256 million), could prove particularly daunting. And expensive.

Perhaps the biggest challenge: “(T)he setting and adjusting of the road-user charge rates … would likely face as much opposition as increasing motor fuels taxes,” the researcher say.

That is, the politics of such a proposed public policy could be brutal.

Then there’s this: A number of small-scale studies have been undertaken to date in the United States, Kirk and Levinson remind. Large-scale studies would provide better information. One such larger study is being undertaken by the University of Iowa.

A February 2014 study by the Reason Foundation supported transitioning from taxes on fuels to taxing miles driven.

“The replacement should be a direct charge for the amount of highway services a motorist uses,” wrote Robert Poole Jr. and Adrian Moore. “It should be sustainable, fair, efficient, and – for major highways and bridges – tailored to the capital and operating cost of those individual facilities.

“The system used to implement the direct charge should not create privacy concerns by enabling governments to track where and when people travel,” they stress. “And it should give motorists choice in how to pay for their miles traveled.”

That’s a smart overview. But, again, such a transition likely would be easier said than done.

Both the Reason and GAO studies suggest going from a fuels tax to a mileage-based tax also could reduce congestion by better allowing the implementation of congestion pricing. That is, motorists who chose to travel at peak congestion times could be charged more – an enticement to drive outside traditional rush hours to reduce traveling costs.

But would that create new rush hours? Ah, the Bastiatian “seen and unseen.”

Of course, human action being what it is, it is difficult to gauge how highway users would react to such a change, in theory and in practice.

Perhaps residents in the heavily urbanized Eastern Pennsylvania will react differently than, outside of Greater Pittsburgh, those in more rural Western Pennsylvania. Perhaps Pittsburghers, who still appear to have an aversion to crossing rivers, would cross even less?

Once quipped Albert Einstein, “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”

Here’s to well-rounded, science-based and politics-free studies of the mileage-based highway user tax. For it’s the only way We the People will be able to make an informed decision.

This post originally appeared on Townhall

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