That new Prius you're driving is a wonderful thing, and it's great when you take the bus or I ride my bike. But there's a downside to fuel efficiency, cutting down on driving to ride a bike or take a bus, and less travel due to the recession.
The down side is that gas taxes pay the lion's share of our highway repairs and improvements. (For local streets, the costs are borne mostly by property taxpayers.) This growing gap between what federal and state gas taxes yield and the infrastructure needs we've got out there is becoming a serious problem. According to the "Report Card for America's Infrastructure" released by the American Society of Civil Engineers, 16% of Wisconsin's bridges are deficient and 30% of our highways are in poor or mediocre condition.
I don't think too many of us, who aren't oil company executives, would want to see the problem solved by surging gasoline sales. But how do we fill the gap?
At last week's meeting of the state Commission on Transportation Finance and Policy, Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance director Todd Berry floated an intriguing idea to solve the problem: What if we eliminated the gas tax altogether, and replaced it with a per mile fee adjusted by weight of vehicle?
I like this idea, known as a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) tax, for a number of reasons. It is the fairest way to pay for road repair, mass transit, and bike infrastructure, because it's based on how much you use the road system in vehicles that cause varying levels of wear and tear. The driver of a truck would pay relatively more per mile, which is fair because trucks are harder on roads. And it's fair that all drivers help pay for transit and bike infrastructure, because transit and bike riders take up less space on roads and in parking facilities. Besides, most of us who ride bikes or take buses also drive, so it's not as if we don't already pay for our own services.
The technology already exists to do this, but there are practical hurdles. For people like me who are concerned that Big Brother would be watching, the system can simply count mileage without tracking where you go. The bigger problem is how to tax out of state drivers who Wisconsin couldn't require to implement mile-counting technology on their vehicles. That's why this idea works best at the federal level.
Todd Berry's not alone. Many civil engineers and economists like this idea. For a take from an experienced civil engineering professor read a recent article by Michael Meyer of the Georgia Institute of Technology.