New Tax? Drive More Miles, Pay More Money

The federal government and a dozen states around the country are considering taxing residents on how many miles they drive.

It would be a radical shift away from a system in which motorists are taxed by state and federal governments for each gallon of gas they buy. That money is then used to maintain the roads and bridges everyone uses on a daily basis.

The problem is that today's cars are more fuel-efficient than those in the past. These vehicles take up the same space on highways and beat up roads just as much as yesterday's gas guzzlers, but don't generate as much in taxes because they use less fuel.

But switching our taxation system is no easy task.

A commission created by Congress to study transportation financing released a report this morning in Washington offering recommendations on how to pay for highways, besides the gas tax. A mileage-based fee was one of the top solutions.

"The most viable approach to efficiently fund federal investment in surface transportation in the medium to long run will be a user charge system based more directly on miles driven (and potentially on factors such as time of day, type of road, and vehicle weight and fuel economy) rather than indirectly on fuel consumed," the report said.

Public reaction to such taxes so far has been lukewarm, at best, and downright nasty, at worst. Government officials who have mentioned the idea have generally backed down.

"It's invasive and it's got to be unconstitutional. It's just wrong in so many ways," said Janice Scarpitti, a Rhode Island resident upset about a now-dropped proposal in her state. "How much can they charge us for driving?"

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Scarpitti is a home health care nurse and drives 300 to 400 miles a week. Her employer doesn't reimburse her for mileage. She said the government should focus on taxing discretionary items such as cigarettes and alcohol.

"Gasoline is a necessity. I don't have a choice about gas. You have to pay for it and you have to drive," she said. "I would have to tell somebody in the government how many miles I put on my car. That's not their business. This is still the United State of America and I wouldn't allow it.

"If they allow that, they will find a way to tax the air you breathe," Scarpitti added. "You have to stop the nonsense."

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U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood floated the idea last week as one of several ways that the government could pay for highway building and maintenance.

"We all ought to be thinking outside the box about how we're going to fund roads, bridges, infrastructure beyond the stimulus," LaHood told reporters Friday.

The White House couldn't back away from the comment fast enough.

"It is not and will not be the policy of the Obama administration," press secretary Robert Gibbs said, adding, "It's a no-go."

Still more and more cash-strapped states are at least putting the option out there for discussion as they embark on their long-term transit planning.

Fuel Taxes Rising Too Slowly

At least 10 states have mentioned a vehicle-mile-traveled, or VMT, tax in planning documents, according to Jim Reed, transportation program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures. Another six have discussed it in some way or another, Reed said.

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