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Should drivers be taxed by the mile?
Highway fund crunch has Texas ordering a study of that question
By PEGGY FIKAC
January 3, 2010
AUSTIN — If you don’t like gasoline taxes, here’s an alternative: a tax on the number of miles you drive in a year.
The Texas Transportation Commission has directed a fresh study of the idea, and it is not alone. There are pilot projects in other states and nationally to gauge how such a tax would work.
Texas transportation officials say the study is meant to help give lawmakers information on options ahead of their next regular session in 2011, when they confront a funding squeeze that is expected to drain the highway fund of money for new construction contracts by 2012.
“We need to think differently about how we fund transportation,” Texas Transportation Commission Chairwoman Deirdre Delisi said at a Texas Taxpayers and Research Association forum in November.
Delisi said the vehicle-miles-traveled tax idea is controversial, but should be discussed because revenue from the state’s main source of transportation funding, the motor fuels tax, is declining. The gasoline tax has not been raised since 1991.
The commission asked the Texas Transportation Institute, which is part of the Texas A&M University System, to take the lead on the study. Commissioner Fred Underwood has emphasized that the commission’s goal is to give lawmakers alternatives.
“Let’s just make sure that we give them options, not conclusions,” he said.
Texas Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee Chairman John Carona, R-Dallas, has said an increase in the gasoline tax makes sense to him, but that has proven politically difficult so far. A vehicle-miles-traveled tax is “far into the future and way ahead of its time,” he said.
“It’s not coming to a gas station near you any time soon, but it also can’t be dismissed out of hand,” he said in e-mailed statement. “If study can lead us to better funding mechanisms than we are currently using, and we can address the concerns, then we have an obligation to keep at it.”
Just how a vehicle-miles-traveled tax would be assessed is part of the study. It could be as simple as drivers writing a check when they have their vehicles inspected or could involve in-car technology to more precisely track mileage, perhaps tacking on a charge when drivers fuel up by communicating with the gas pump.
The latter would allow for such things as different charges for rural versus urban driving, and for deductions when people travel out of state, noted Ginger Goodin, the Texas Transportation Institute research engineer leading the study. She said, however, that privacy concerns quickly arise when such technology is discussed.
“I think anywhere this has been discussed, that (privacy) is probably the issue that emerges among the top issues,” she said. “That will have to be addressed.”
The study will vet alternatives with technology experts, representatives of other states’ transportation agencies and with the public through focus groups. The work will be forwarded to a yet-to-be named committee of citizens to explore the policy implications.