Politicians own most roads. I don’t think they should, but now political roads are so entrenched that it would be a difficult thing to transition to a free market in roads. (Certainly I don’t regard such a move as a priority.) So long as politicians own the roads, they must fund them with some sort of taxes or fees. How should they do that?
Ideally, roads should be funded as closely as possible by use. That’s the idea behind the gasoline tax. If you drive more, you pay more. If you drive larger vehicles that cause more wear on the roads, you pay more. If you don’t drive at all, you pay nothing. So, as far as taxes go, the gasoline tax is among the least offensive. Certainly they are better than general taxes collected for roads that bear no relation to use.
What about toll roads? For new highways, a toll makes a lot of sense. Notably, a toll road need not be owned or operated by politicians; they can and should be owned and operated by market companies. I’m not a huge fan of charging tolls for politically-owned roads that are also funded with gasoline (and other) taxes. I’m more open to the idea of charging tolls on such roads for new lanes.
This brings us to today’s news:
Provisions for tolls on existing public roads and a fee based on miles driven must be removed from a major transportation funding bill if it is to get bipartisan support, Republican leaders say. … [Two legislators] have gotten mixed reaction on the proposed vehicle-registration-fee increase at the heart of the plan, which would cost drivers of most cars and trucks $41 a year. … Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry and House Minority Leader Mike May say they are willing to increase the fee if other changes are made… [including the] elimination of a study to determine if there is a funding source, such as a vehicle-miles-traveled fee, that would be better than the 75- year-old gas tax.
Obviously I’m against raising registration fees, which have nothing to do with use.
What about a per-mileage fee? I was surprised to learn from Vincent Carroll that Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation is among those “intrigued with billing for miles.” Carroll is sensible to the implications:
[W]ith an electronic gadget in your car that notes when and where you drive, bureaucrats will enjoy much more power. They’ll be able to adjust driving fees according to the time of day or type of car. They’ll be able to create zones in which the tax per mile is higher than it is in others.
Yes, they’d be able to do all of that, and perhaps eventually much more. Eventually somebody will get the bright idea of using the tax for more far-reaching social-engineering (beyond driving politically-correct cars). What about tax “incentives” for politically-correct driving, such as government-approved “volunteer” work? “Incentives” for driving in economically depressed areas? “Incentives” for driving to politically-favored jobs or health activities?
Carroll summarizes the argument against the gasoline tax:
State Rep. Joe Rice, D-Littleton, has got the right idea when he says “we’ve got to figure out something besides the gas tax” to pay for roads. Hybrid vehicles and, later, a growing fleet of fully electric autos are going to destroy the link between the miles you drive and the amount of fuel tax you pay.
The argument about hybrids is unconvincing. Many hybrids get worse gas mileage than my family’s two traditional vehicles. If hybrids actually manage to catch on, that would imply only that the gasoline tax might have to be increased per gallon.
I don’t see “fully electric autos” rising in the market anytime in the near future. Nobody has solved the battery problem, so far as I’m aware. (They’re expensive, large, heavy, and toxic.) So until somebody creates an electric car that actually works at a reasonable cost, I see little point in changing the type of tax. If that happens, surely there are alternatives to a mileage tax.
I for one have no interest in telling Big Brother where and when I’m driving.