The fuel efficiency of cars in America has been steadily improving for years, and this is, undeniably, a good thing. It turns out, however, that we've built into our transportation system a terrible, inherent contradiction: As we need less gas to get from point A to point B, less revenue is generated by the gas tax that paves the road between those two places.
America's transportation system is crumbling — a new report out this week paints the picture in particularly grim detail — and the advancements we cheer in hybrid technology and electric batteries are going to make it increasingly difficult to fix things.
Part of the problem, says Jeff Shane, is treating the gas levy as a sin tax, an intentionally self-destructing fee placed on products (cigarettes, tanning beds) in the hopes that people will eventually stop using them (and with the understanding that their associated revenue will dry up). Of course, this doesn't work too well if you actually need all those pennies to build something.
"Tying the funding of our transportation system to a tax levied on a commodity, the consumption of which we're trying to discourage, is probably not the best way to go," said Shane, a partner at the Hogan Lovells law firm in Washington and a former undersecretary for policy at the Department of Transportation. He directed a transportation conference at the University of Virginia's Miller Center, which led this week to the new report, "Well Within Reach: America's New Transportation Agenda."
What's needed now is not a higher gas tax, but a whole new way of looking at how we pay our fair share for using public roads. The report's authors home in on what has become the consensus favorite solution of transportation wonks. We shouldn't fill road coffers according to how much gas we buy, but how many miles we drive.
The gas tax has ceased to function in the way it was originally intended — as a user fee (by sparing us their tail-pipe emissions, this means those 50-mile-per-gallon Prius drivers are also not really paying for their full use of common roads). Today, the most accurate measure of use is what's known as Vehicle Miles Traveled.
The technology currently exists — and has been tested in some pilot programs — to upload your odometer reading at, for instance, a fixed location like a gas station. Or perhaps, Shane suggests, the data could be remotely accessed by Bluetooth and sent to drivers as a bill.
"You would just get used to seeing that bill," he said. "It would be like a utility bill. It would be your driving bill."
Many people, he concedes, are spooked by the concept because they fear VMT could represent another government intrusion into private data, enabling Big Brother to track where you are and where you've been going. But Uncle Sam doesn't need to know you went last night to a casino — just that you drove 5 miles to get there.
"I tend to be a little skeptical of that [concern] given the fact that government already knows every time you use your credit card, every time you go through a toll both," Shane said. "But the fact is it doesn't have to be 'Big Brother.'"
A VMT fee could maintain privacy, he says, while still giving policymakers greater flexibility than currently exists with the gas tax to encourage beneficial driving behavior.
"It's such a blunt instrument, it doesn't help you manage demand at all," he said of the gas tax. "The beauty of VMT is not that it's a less visible tax, but that it can be calibrated."
The fee could be adjusted for the weight of your vehicle (heavy trucks are, in a way, greater "users" of the highway system than are motorcycles), or according to the time of day you travel. Innovative toll systems that charge variable rates in off-peak and rush hours have been popular with many drivers, Shane points out, because they manage traffic in a way that gets everyone around more efficiently. A calibrated VMT could have the same effect.
The Miller Center report, co-chaired by a pair of former transportation secretaries, highlighted a litany of other transit imperatives, from high-speed rail to more reliable air travel. But everything starts, Shane said, with the funding question.
"This is the issue, if we don't solve this issue, we can basically forget about all the others," he said. "Without a sustainable stream of investment funding, we're going nowhere. That's what's so frustrating to so many of us."