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Vehicle Miles to Replace Fuel Tax?


 

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By Don Dunphy

 


December 2016
 
Vehicle miles traveled (VMT) is a funding mechanism that charges drivers according to how many miles the vehicle has been driven, as opposed to current point-of-purchase fuel taxes. The primary beneficiary of the fuel taxes, the Highway Trust Fund (HTF), struggles annually to stay solvent and continue to pay for projects to build and repair the country’s roads and bridges.
 
Additionally, alternate fuel vehicles and more efficient gas and diesel engines make fewer trips to the station to pay fuel taxes, and some vehicles don’t visit gas stations at all.
 
Sam Graves (R), Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, is the U.S. Representative for Missouri’s 6th congressional district, serving since 2001. He is a leading proponent for VMT as a funding source for the Highway Trust Fund, and in a one-on-one interview outlined his reasons for pursuing this funding mechanism.

 

Many see VMT as a direct threat to personal privacy because of the tracking requirements to make the proposition work.

 
“The U.S. infrastructure network is quickly falling behind the rest of the world,” Graves said, stating that the U.S. has more vehicles on the road than anyone ever envisioned. “America is a country where everything is always on the move, be it people, goods, services… absolutely everything moves. “We also have a Highway Trust Fund which is supposed to fund improvements to that infrastructure system and which is going broke. It’s going to be insolvent in a very short period of time,” he said. “We have a lot of vehicles on the road that are simply not paying into the use of those roads. We’re a gas/diesel-tax-based system. If you’re not using gas or diesel, you’re not paying into the use of that road. We have a very regressive system with the fuel tax and it’s getting worse and worse all the time.”
 
Graves feels that VMT would capture lost dollars from everyone who uses the road based on whatever miles they are traveling. “It’s a very equitable system,” Graves said.
 
He’s quick to add, “Everything remains on the table in terms of trying to solve the HTF problem. While I like VMT, I want to make sure that if we switch, we will end the gas tax on a ‘date-certain’ and start VMT on a ‘date-certain.’ I don’t want to saddle the taxpayer with paying into two systems at the same time.”

 
Potential Fleet Benefits

The Congressman believes fleets will benefit from the creation of long-term, sustainable, and predictable funding for the infrastructure. Further, a solvent HTF would pay to repair crumbling roads and bridges which have a direct impact on fleet and vehicle functionality.
 
“Two-hundred and fifty-three members – a majority of both parties – signed a letter calling for a long-term funding solution for the HTF,” Graves said. “There is bipartisan interest in solving this. This is something that the government does and should do and should do well. I hope we can work together to find solutions and I think we will.”
 
Nonetheless, there is opposition, and not just from an opposing party. The conservative organization Americans for Tax Reform has been unequivocal in opposition to VMT, much as it has been to gas taxes, asserting that all these should be a “states’ rights and taxation” issue, not a federal one.
 
“Well, that’s just one group, and it’s important to note there are several conservative groups out there that support the concept of VMT, doing something different, and fixing the HTF,” Graves replied. “The federal government has a role here. We have both federal and state transportation systems. We cannot have an interstate system that goes from really good highways in one state to really horrible ones throughout the next. The federal system crosses all of the  states and is imperative for goods, services, and people all over the country.
 
“Like any serious legislative effort, building a coalition of supporters is a major component,” said Graves. “I’m confident, based on my conversations, that we can make a strong case with the thinktanks, transportation groups, and the public to buy into it.”
 
Various VMT pilot programs taking place across the country are gathering valuable data about the concept and learning what will work and what might not. “Oregon and Washington are leading the country in that. Those programs will play an integral part in the proposal we come up with.”

 
Commercial Versus Personal Privacy 
 
Many see VMT as a direct threat to personal privacy because of the tracking requirements to make the proposition work. Graves is convinced that the platform can be implemented without the intrusive aspects of tracking and recognizes the seriousness of privacy concerns. He also says that “the commercial sector will be very easy (to switch over) because most commercial vehicles are already required to log vehicle miles.”
 
“For individuals, we want to make sure VMT is revenue-neutral because they would pay approximately the same thing under this new system as they would through the gas tax,” Graves explained. “This would be revenue-neutral for now so that no one is hit with a big tax increase at the end of the day. Nonetheless, there will be a revenue increase as we pick up the vehicles that aren’t paying into the system at all right now.”
 
Graves and his colleagues intend to start work on the next highway bill in 2019, which needs to be completed by September 2020. He is confident that bipartisan support can be achieved and expects that, because of the Trump administration’s longstanding promise to repair and strengthen the American infrastructure, a VMT policy should attain the full support of the president. 

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