Head West, Turn Right

The Joint Blog of the Conservative Northwest Blogging Alliance: Red State Points of View from a Blue State Point on the Compass.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Miles to Go Before I Pay

Thanks for the Heads Up to Vodkapundit via The Wheat Rye Guy.

Crossposted at Memento Moron.

Yesterday I added my Widow's Mite of opinion to a discussion over at Vodkapundit's Blog regarding a proposal by the state of California to tax people based on the number of miles driven, a proposal inspired (ironically enough) by decreases in gasoline tax revenues caused in turn by an increase in the fuel efficiency of newer vehicles. I not only expressed my misgivings regarding such a concept, and furthermore, my dismay that my own home state of Oregon is experimenting with such a tax. However, after reading an article in the Seattle Times (which one of VP's readers provided) regarding Oregon's experiment with the concept, I am forced to admit that for once Oregon's normally wacky state government may be on the right track. If I may be permitted to explain?

I preface my explanation by saying that in concept, road tolls or a mileage tax like this make more sense to me, and seem far fairer, than a gas tax. This is because tolls and mileage taxes charge the users of roads specifically, and charge them based on how much they use the roads. Those who benefit directly are charged directly, and in direct proportion to the amount of benefit they receive. My objections to, or rather my concerns over, such a mileage tax, have more to do with practical considerations regarding its implementation and unintended consequences that need to be addressed. The Devil is, after all, in the details. The article addressed some of those concerns, and my own reflection on the issue caused a further shift.

My first concern is that if such a tax is implemented, it would be a tax in addition to gas taxes, rather than a replacement. I'm all for re-applying a necessary tax with a more equitable form of taxation, but I'm hesitant to increase taxes unless absolutely necessary. However, the article clearly points out that in the case of Oregon's experiment with the tax, it would be a replacement for the gas tax, not an additional tax.

My second concern has to do with the unintended result such a tax might have of discouraging the use of more fuel efficient vehicles. But upon further reflection, I realized two things. First of all, if the mileage tax is a replacement tax and not in addition to a gas tax, this is not so much of an issue. Secondly, I came to the realization that opposing such a tax based on this objection would be intellectually inconsistent on my part, and here is the reason why:

I don't beleive a tax should intentionally be engineered to specifically encourage or discourage a given behavior. If by engaging in a given behavior individuals create a material burden on the general public, I have no problem with taxing that behavior in order to mitigate that burden. And if such legitimate taxation happens to have the side effect of causing the individual to reconsider the behavior, that's a bonus. But taxing the behavior JUST to discourage it, that smacks of stateism to me. If I am to be consistent, then I cannot oppose a tax simply because implementing it fails to reward GOOD behavior.

My final concern was regarding the practicality of implementing such a tax, particularly for drivers of older cars. The article addresses that as well, stating that if implemented, it would only apply to new vehicles, while older vehicles would still pay a Gas tax.

In conclusion, I still have some concerns regarding the implementation of such a concept. And while the article allayed some of those concerns, it raised others. If all of those concerns can be and are addressed, I believe that such a tax, if implemented AS A REPLACEMENT FOR a gasoline tax, is not so bad an idea (Sadly for our Washington Bloggers, the same is not true. According to the article, your state intends to implement such a tax IN ADDITION TO your gasoline tax -- beware).

8 Comments:

At 4:27 PM, Blogger Michael_the_Archangel said...

Sorry, I have to disagree with you on this one. Here is why.

First, it would end up penalizing much of rural Oregon. These folks end up having to drive miles and miles to get anywhere. There really isn't much traffic on many of those rural roads and (compared to urban freeways that get tons of traffic) upkeep is minimal. Yet this tax would hurt them.

Second, our roads are a major lifeline for goods and services. The extra burden that it would put on those who use the roads for delivering goods and services would drive up the cost - who pays, you and me.

Third, it is WAY to Orwellian for my tastes. The 'tracking' device is suppose to ONLY be used for tracking how many miles you traveled, etc. Wanna bet it can be used for many other purposes, like where you are right now? How many times and where and when you exceeded the speed limit? Sorry, Big Brother Oregon keeps close enough tabs on me already.

Fourth, an added cost to every car sold in Oregon and an added cost to equipt gas pumps. Wanna guess where they are going to get that money? Look at your wallet.

Better ideas - quit making us add a 'bike lane' to every new road that gets built and or every time a road or bridge has a major overhaul. Get rid of the 'prevailing wage' law, we can get construction work done for much less than it's costing us now. Privatize many of the functions that the Dept of Transportation is doing now (including spreading sand and picking it up) it can be contracted out saving us money and getting the same or a better job done. Those are just off the top of my head.

 
At 5:44 PM, Blogger Brian B said...

Michael,

Regarding rural Oregonians: They're already paying those taxes, in the form of gasoline taxes. The more miles you drive, the more gas you buy, the more tax you pay. The inequity is that those who drive newer, more efficient cars buy less gas and thus pay less per mile for using the same roads. How many of those rural Oregonians drive less efficient vehicles, like pickups, for practical considerations? That means they're currently paying MORE per mile than a flat mileage tax would impose. Of course, this is still predicated on paying that tax INSTEAD of a gas tax, not in addition to it.

Your second point? See above.

Your third point is valid and well taken, which is why I qualified my support -- only if such concerns are addressed.

Fourth point is also a good point, but it's a short-term objection to what could be a long-term solution. Furthermore, the cost will decrease significantly as the technology becomes less expensive.

As for your suggestions for better ideas, I agree that those are all things to consider. My point was not that more taxes are the answer, but that a more equitable way of collecting an existing tax *IS* a good idea.

Also off the top of my head, what about toll roads, especially in our urban areas? You only pay for the road if you use it. Again, I'd only propose these as alternatives to gasoline taxes, not as supplements.

 
At 6:42 AM, Blogger Michael_the_Archangel said...

Regarding your idea about toll roads, I personally dislike them, but only because I feel that our taxes have already paid for the road; and the government does a crap job. Here is a tale ( a true one):

In California, a company rented the empty space in the middle of the 91 freeway and used it as a toll road - complete with computers that scan the cars as they drive by so they don't even have to slow down. They are billed electronically. Less slowing down, less traffic jams, cars moved faster, better profits for the company. To continue that trend, they installed cameras to watch for problems; if you had a problem someone was there quickly to help you. Run out of gas, they came and gave you a gallon for free. They even put in pricing, where during congestion time you paid more and if you used it at say midnight you paid much less. The road was kept up better, more people used it. Guess what happened? The government bought them out and took it over. The positive qualities all deteriorated. All the profit making mechanisms stayed in place but service dropped off dramatically.

I also don't believe there is any way that the government wouldn't justify using the 'chips' (they installed in the cars) for other reasons. They would start out telling us it was just for this, but later there would be another "good" reason to use it for another purpose as well.

Is there anything in the bill as to how the 'tax per mile' charge will be raised? Again, right now we know and we can fight it when they try to tack more money on at the pump. Once everything is electronic, it's real easy to increase the cost with the stroke of a key.

I don't like it.

 
At 9:05 AM, Blogger Brian B said...

Michael,

With regards to your comment that our taxes have already paid for the roads: Which taxes? If you mean specifically the gasoline taxes, then you have to remember why this experiment was proposed. As more and more cars on the road are more and more fuel efficient, the amount of revenue from gas taxes will decrease. So unless you're all for an increase in gas taxes, we need to come up with a better way to pay for the roads.

As for your example, it doesn't really invalidate the idea of toll roads, it just makes the point that there are good ways and bad ways to run them. I'd be all for contracting out the operation of such roads to private companies.

Regarding the expansion of the technology for more intrusive uses, I agree that it's something to be cautious about, but it's not enough to invalidate the concept -- just enough to make us vigilant in how it's applied.

As for your last point, when you pull in to a gas station now, do you go check every time to see how much of that price per gallon is taxes? How difficult would it be to do the math and take the amount of mileage tax you've been charged, divide it by the miles you've driven, and come up with the tax rate per mile, just to keep them honest?

I know you don't like it, and I'm not 100% sold on it myself, but I definitely think that taxing gasoline is rapidly becomin a broken method of raising funds for roads, so I invite you to come up with a better solution.

 
At 11:26 AM, Blogger Michael_the_Archangel said...

As for what taxes paid for the roads, usually roads are built using bonds, the gas tax is usually used merely for maintaining the roads - two different animals.

My example shows two things that I think should be done rather than what is being done. First, if it's a toll road, bought and paid for by a private company, then there are no 'taxes' used to build or maintain those roads. If you want to use that road you pay for it then and only then. If we were able turn many of the roads over to private industry, THEY could do the maintenance, thus lowering or doing away with the need for some of the taxes. Second, turn over maintenance of many of our 'public' roads to private companies and the cost of repair goes down (and efficiency goes up) again, the need for higher (or different) taxes goes away.

I believe the the situation is 'broken' as you say, because all they are doing is looking for more money to fund a system/situation that is broken. Change some of the underlying components and the 'need' for the money and the amount of money needed becomes smaller.

We are a state that has given too much over to the 'public' sector and the libs are scared that someone can do it better and cheaper while still making a profit if we turn it (most anything) over to the private sector.

See what is happening to the charter schools? Same thing can happen if you start turning a few other services over to the private sector. Instead of trying to figure out a way to get more money out of you and me.

 
At 1:12 PM, Blogger Brian B said...

OK, so let's concentrate just on the issue of taxes for upkeep, not building.

you say:

"I believe the the situation is 'broken' as you say, because all they are doing is looking for more money to fund a system/situation that is broken."

I say:
If you'll read the article again, it's not an issue of MORE money -- it's a situation where the forecast is for a decrease in gas tax revenues because cars are getting better mileage.

You say:
"Change some of the underlying components and the 'need' for the money and the amount of money needed becomes smaller."

Agreed -- it becomes smaller, but it wll never go away completely. So it's a greed that we have to have SOME tax income to keep up the roads -- how much that need is can certainly be mitigated by more responsible measures.

But if we're going to have to have SOME tax to pay for those roads (no matter how small), why not explore the possibility that there's a fairer, more equitable way of collecting it than taxing gasoline?

 
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