As federal and state governments struggle to adequately fund their transportation networks, a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax has potential to increase revenues -- but the establishment of the tax is probably years away.
To cite one example, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s major transportation funding proposal would eliminate the state gas tax and replace it with a higher sales tax. There is no mention of VMT. In fact, no state currently charges drivers a VMT tax, which tracks all miles traveled and charges a fee based on distance.
“The technology is generally there but there are an awful lot of political, institutional, and general public policy concerns that we still have to deal with,” said Rob Puentes, a transportation policy expert at the Brookings Institution.
One big concern may be privacy. A study by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments Transportation Planning Board released last week found that 86 percent of area commuters oppose having a GPS device installed in their vehicles to track all their miles traveled.
“There are lot of measures that can be put in place to insure that personal information is not being used or exploited, but you really have to do a good job of convincing the motoring public that privacy concerns are going to be dealt with in a very clear way,” Puentes said.
At a time when governments are looking for dedicated revenue streams for transportation systems and projects that often run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, VMT offers an opportunity to direct money to the most troublesome roads, said Puentes, who said a VMT tax would mark a fundamental change to transportation funding.
“If you are driving on the Beltway during rush hour consistently adding to the traffic on those highly congested roads, you’d be paying more, and then those revenues would go back to the road you are using,” he said. Under the current gas tax system, revenues are placed into central transportation funds and allocated more evenly.
Politically, few politicians have shown the willingness to try to convince drivers of the merits of VMT.
"Oregon is generally considered to be the state that's pioneering most of the research and the policy analysis around this. A state law requires them to look at this,” said Puentes, referring to a state pilot program.
A University of Iowa study examined VMT on a pilot basis in Oregon and 12 U.S. cities. In Congress, Oregon Representative Earl Blumenauer is pushing a bill that would mandate that the Treasury Department study VMT. In 2009 a national commission recommended VMT as one possible solution to the nation's transportation funding crisis.