A small group of East Coast states want to modernize their roadways by forcing citizens to pay for each mile driven rather than the amount of gas consumed.
Delaware, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New Hampshire are trying to determine how best to administer the new changes — it’s a move that would effectively whisk away the traditional gas taxes that federal and state governments use to maintain roads.
A similar idea is being floated by the I-95 Corridor Coalition, which represents officials from 16 states and Washington, D.C., who applied for federal grants to test the controversial idea.
The officials are testing the mileage taxing idea with 50 recruits from each of the four states. They will issue a cascade of “faux invoices” monthly to the recruits. The data will be compiled by legislatures and later used to determine the effectiveness of the program.
California plans to enact a similar program in July with the same fake invoices.
The idea is not a popular one.
Polling outfit Mineta Transportation Institute conducted a poll of 1,500 people in June, which found that support for the idea ranged between 23 percent and 48 percent. The idea was slightly more popular if the mileage taxes varied by how much vehicles polluted.
Gas taxes are not popular either.
Another recent Mineta survey measuring public opinion on raising gas taxes, and authored by Asha Weinstein Agrawal and Hilary Nixon, discovered that between 31 percent and 75 percent of people supported increasing the gas tax — 75 percent of people supported it only if the gas tax was dedicated to maintenance matters.
Oregon became the first state to switch from gas taxes to mileage taxes last July. Oregon Democrats champion the program, called OReGO. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat, told reporters that electric vehicles, like the one he drives, do not use gas so they cannot be taxed. So, he claims, the best alternative is to go to a user-based tax.
“I’m excited to be one of the first 5,000 volunteers in the OReGO program, because I’m convinced that as a state and as a nation we should not pay for transportation based on how much fuel we consume,” he said in a videotaped message for OReGO.
Privacy activists are concerned the policy may further erode privacy. The OReGO website, however, those enrolling in the program will have their personal information “kept secure and private.”
Jennifer Cohan, Delaware’s secretary of transportation and chair of the coalition, said states have to make a change — so, she said, the time is now to look at new ideas.
“Whatever it ends up being, at least we’ll have data. We’ll actually have something to show: This is what it will look like if we actually implement it,” Cohan said.
Officials are trying like mad to reassure the public, telling them the intent behind the new mileage tax is an alternative to the gas tax, not an additional tax.
“The idea is to get folks comfortable that mileage-based user fees are a feasible, reasonable and easy-to-use approach,” Patricia G. Hendren, executive director of the I-95 coalition, told reporters.
The user-based tax is all about fairness, advocates say. People should be responsible for paying for the amount of services and roads they use.
“It’s the age-old discussion: whether or not transportation should be user-based or more broadly based, because it’s a basic function of government,” Aubrey Layne, a transportation secretary in Virginia, said. Layne said he supports the exploration, which could turn out to be “part of the answer.”
“I don’t think it’s the Promised Land that’s going solve all our problems,” Layne cautioned, adding that it probably won’t fix the inability to solve crumbling roads and transportation problems in a cost effective way.
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