Scrap the gas tax! It’s time to start charg­ing driv­ers by the mile

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - CHANGE OF SUBJECT - By Eric Zorn er­ic­zorn@gmail.com Twit­ter @Er­ic­Zorn

On Jan. 1, 1990, Illi­nois raised its mo­tor fuel tax to 19 cents a gal­lon from 16 cents a gal­lon.

It’s a tax that helps main­tain roads, bridges and high­ways — the crit­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture of our econ­omy.

And if you drove 12,000 miles that year — roughly what most peo­ple drive every year — in a pas­sen­ger car that got 28 miles per gal­lon, the av­er­age back then, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional High­way Traf­fic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion — you’d have paid a lit­tle more than $80 in state gas taxes. That trans­lates to about $160 in 2018 dol­lars, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Bureau of La­bor Sta­tis­tics in­fla­tion cal­cu­la­tor.

Nearly 29 years have passed. Roads have con­tin­ued to crumble. Bridges have con­tin­ued to rust. And politi­cians have con­tin­ued to quail at the idea of rais­ing the gas tax to keep up with the ris­ing prices of in­fra­struc­ture re­pair.

If you drive 12,000 miles this year in a pas­sen­ger car that gets 38 miles per gal­lon, the new and im­proved av­er­age, ac­cord­ing to NHTSA, you’ll pay about $60 in state gas taxes — $100 lower in in­fla­tion-ad­justed dol­lars, or 62 per­cent less, than you paid in 1990.

Very sim­i­lar num­bers ap­ply to the fed­eral gas tax, which has been stuck at 18.4 cents a gal­lon since 1993.

Sim­ply rais­ing the gas tax, as Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and mem­bers of his ad­min­is­tra­tion pro­posed in 2017, is not an ideal so­lu­tion to this chronic prob­lem.

The in­creas­ing num­ber of hy­brid and elec­tric cars on the road means that over­all con­sump­tion of gaso­line is con­tin­u­ing to fall, which means the bur­den of higher per-gal­lon taxes will fall even more dis­pro­por­tion­ately on those who can’t af­ford modern high-mileage ve­hi­cles.

A bet­ter so­lu­tion — not ideal but bet­ter in line with to­day’s re­al­ity — is to scrap the per-gal­lon gas tax al­to­gether and re­place it with a mileage tax. Such a tax would turn every road into a toll road and has the po­ten­tial to put the bur­den of main­tain­ing and fix­ing the roads most heav­ily on those who use and dam­age them the most.

The no­tion has come up in the race for gover­nor be­tween Demo­crat J.B. Pritzker and Re­pub­li­can in­cum­bent Bruce Rauner. More about that in a mo­ment.

A ve­hi­cle-miles trav­eled (VMT) tax could be flex­i­ble — lower rates for lighter ve­hi­cles and ru­ral res­i­dents; higher rates dur­ing rush hours or in dense ur­ban set­tings — to en­cour­age fuel econ­omy and re­duce en­ergy-wast­ing con­ges­tion. Char­i­ta­ble uses and travel on ex­ist­ing toll­ways could be tax ex­empt. If set wisely and in­dexed for in­fla­tion in the cost of road re­pairs, a VMT tax could make hand-wring­ing about how to pay to fix our trans­porta­tion sys­tem a thing of the past.

Yes, most of us would pay more, ei­ther di­rectly through a VMT tax or in­di­rectly through the higher costs of goods de­liv­ered by truck. But un­der such a user-pays sys­tem, what we pay would more fairly re­flect the ben­e­fit each of us re­ceives from hav­ing ac­cess to a smooth net­work of roads.

Are there draw­backs and pit­falls? Sure! The main con­cern about VMT taxes is the threat that im­ple­ment­ing them poses to pri­vacy. Mea­sur­ing not only how many miles a per­son drives but where he or she drives re­quires the in­stal­la­tion and use of GPS tech­nol­ogy that the­o­ret­i­cally al­lows The Man (or di­vorce lawyers or data-min­ing cap­i­tal­ists) to ret­ro­spec­tively map your move­ments.

Yes, some of that track­ing can be done now with toll transpon­ders and ubiq­ui­tous sur­veil­lance cam­eras, but the idea of the gov­ern­ment know­ing where your car is and has been at all times is a di­lap­i­dated bridge too far for many peo­ple. This is true even for those not com­mit­ting crimes or headed to il­licit assig­na­tions.

De­vi­ously clever peo­ple would prob­a­bly find ways to hack the sys­tem and avoid pay­ing a VMT tax for all the miles they drive. Retrofitti­ng every car on the road with de­vices that up­load mileage data and equip­ping the state with the hard­ware and soft­ware to process that data and col­lect VMT taxes would re­quire a sig­nif­i­cant up­front in­vest­ment from a state al­ready awash in red ink.

Yes, yes.

But some states and coun­tries are al­ready ex­per­i­ment­ing with var­i­ous forms of this idea as they, too, see the pur­chas­ing power of their gas taxes plum­met. Are there ways to wall off the GPS data and erase it as soon as it’s used for tax pur­poses? Would it work to take mileage read­ings an­nu­ally or at the gas pump, and levy VMT taxes ac­cord­ingly?

“I think it’s some­thing we should look at,” Pritzker said of the gen­eral no­tion dur­ing a meet­ing with the Daily Her­ald Ed­i­to­rial Board in Jan­uary. “We have to be care­ful about how it gets im­ple­mented,” he was quick to add, “and that’s why it should only be a test at this point.”

Well!

Rauner, cyn­i­cally and op­por­tunis­ti­cally, has been ex­plod­ing with in­dig­na­tion over this ut­terly sen­si­ble state­ment ever since. “Pritzker came out and said, ‘Let’s tax every­body by the miles they drive — let’s put a box in peo­ple’s cars — track how many miles when they drive to work, when they drive to school, when they go to the gro­cery store.’” he said dur­ing one de­bate. “That is big gov­ern­ment, big tax­ing.”

“He wants a car tax,” seethed a Rauner cam­paign com­mer­cial. “How much is it go­ing to cost us just to drive to a fam­ily mem­ber’s house?”

Rather than fight back — point out that Rauner has re­fused to con­sider rais­ing the gas tax and has of­fered no ideas of his own for cov­er­ing in­fra­struc­ture re­pair (un­less you count pay­ing con­struc­tion work­ers lower wages) — Pritzker has merely de­flected the charge by say­ing, truth­fully though mis­lead­ingly enough, that he “has never pro­posed a ve­hi­cle mileage tax.”

He won’t even de­fend his own no­tion, just as he won’t ex­plain what his ideal grad­u­ated in­come tax sys­tem would look like.

Nei­ther Pritzker nor Rauner is willing to en­dorse ex­pand­ing sales taxes to a range of con­sumer ser­vices that are taxed in neigh­bor­ing states, even though the ser­vice econ­omy is grow­ing. Nei­ther is willing to sup­port levy­ing state taxes on re­tire­ment in­come, even though that’s done in all but three of the 41 states that im­pose an in­come tax and Illi­nois is fac­ing pun­ish­ing cash short­falls.

If only there were a tax on cow­ardice. We could bal­ance the bud­get with th­ese two guys alone.

Re: Tweets

The win­ner of this week’s on­line reader poll for fun­ni­est tweet is @UnFitz: “Laser surgery is like reg­u­lar surgery ex­cept the doc­tor goes ‘Pew! Pew!’ through the en­tire thing.”

I don’t think this is true. But it is true that if you go to chicagotri­bune.com/news­let­ters, you can sign up un­der Change of Sub­ject for a free weekly alert when each new poll goes live.

AN­TO­NIO PEREZ/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

Mo­tor fuel tax rev­enue is be­ing out­paced by the projects it needs to pay for, such as the re­cent $134 mil­lion re­con­struc­tion of the ramps con­nect­ing the Steven­son Ex­press­way and Lake Shore Drive in Chicago.

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