During his successful campaign for the presidency, Barack Obama embraced the cause of surface transportation, arguing with gusto for improvements to inter-city high speed rail, for research and development to advance the mainstream adoption of alternative fuels, and for other green transportation initiatives. In contrast, John McCain trilled one note on the evils of transportation funding earmarks. To those who follow surface transportation policy, the difference between the two was stark: Obama won big points as the more knowledgeable, engaged, and passionate of the two. McCain appeared to be either out of his depth, disinterested, or constrained by poor political counsel.
Now flash forward to our current and befuzzled times. While a disappointingly scant $50 billion of the $787 billion federal stimulus bill was allocated to transportation, Team Obama seemed again to be warming to transformation when newly-appointed Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in a wide-ranging recent interview told Joan Lowy of the Associated Press the country needs to take a good hard look at taxing vehicles by the mile, and more regional tolling. The White House brusquely and publicly notified LaHood that in mentioning a mileage tax he had wandered far off the reservation.
That's hardly where the story ends, as I will explain below. But first, just what is this beast, anyway?
The vehicle-miles-traveled tax, or VMT, is seen by backers as a better way for drivers on our nation's worn out highways, bridges, and roads to pay as they go, resulting in a more sustainable surface transportation system. A VMT is also meant to make choices such as transit, ride-sharing and tele-commuting more attractive than peak-hour solo driving, while helping to fund those alternatives, too.
Why do some believe a VMT is needed? Even if raised, the by-the-gallon federal gas tax will fail to deliver over the long haul, as vehicle fuel efficiency continues to increase. The big federal Highway Trust Fund that tax feeds is already on last-gasp life support. Meanwhile, VMTs have already been successfully beta-tested in, of all places, Central Puget Sound, and the state of Oregon, which is widely seen as a national leader in evaluating the policy's possibilities.
What about common criticisms of a mileage tax? The answer is to design it well. A VMT can be designed to protect privacy. It can also be calibrated to give discounts to drivers of more fuel efficient vehicles and those who travel during off-peak hours and on less-congested roads.
By 2020, Congress willing, GPS trackers could be built into all new cars sold in the U.S. and added to older ones. Cross-state coordination would be required, as would inter-operability between a federal roads VMT and state or regional tolling systems. Regional systems, in addition to imposing time- or congestion-sensitive electronic tolls on certain bridges and stretches of highways, could extend the VMT concept to major arterials or even all streets and roads. Such a bold step is all but unthinkable today, but could help make maintenance of county and local roads and funding of regional transit less dependent on endless ballot measures and special pleadings to the Legislature.
To be sure, the costs and benefits of the current versus the new approach would have to be convincingly detailed to win voter approval for anything so radical as a mileage tax on arterial and sub-arterial roads. The political risks would be considerable at the front end, but could diminish sharply over time as turmoil around surface transportation funding eases and user benefits steadily accrue.
For Washington state, a national VMT on federal-aid roads would mean a steady funding source for the $2 billion worth of mostly-orphaned work needed on Interstate 5 between downtown Seattle and Northgate, and for the nearly $2 billion needed to fix fatality-plagued U.S. 2 which runs east from Snohomish County. That same VMT could be divvied up in such a way as to help fund more transit in those corridors, too. A regional or state VMT could provide a steady share of funding for all manner of languishing pavement repair, interchange re-design, Active Traffic Management, Intelligent Transportation Systems and life safety projects on roads, plus high-capacity corridor transit enhancements.
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