Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski (D) has attracted a lot of attention by calling for an expansion of a pilot program that replaces the gas tax with a per-mile tax which charges the same fee to a Hummer driver as a Prius driver.
The pros and cons of mileage taxes vs. gas taxes are discussed in a post to the political blog BlueOregon, and the same essay was sent out as a query on a transportation activists’ listserv. I started several times to respond …
But I end up stopping, because this whole discussion ignores the elephant — heck, the blue whale — in the driveway.
Somehow we’ve gotten snookered into having a discussion about how to get drivers to pump more money into pavement (or maintain the amount that they are pumping into pavement) without discussing the fact that fuel taxes only pay a small and declining share of what we’re spending on roads — the bigger problem is that general funds and property-tax millages are spent on roads.
Before we discuss fuel taxes vs. mileage taxes vs. congestion pricing or whatever, we first must resolve to do what so many Oregonians mistakenly think we already do: make drivers pay for roads (with gas taxes or their user-fee equivalents, mileage taxes/congestion pricing, vehicle excise taxes, etc.).
In other words, first we must take general fund and property tax millages out of the equation — eliminate these taxes. Then we can have a good discussion about how best to distribute the cost of roads across the fees and taxes that come from road users (gas tax, mileage tax, congestion price, registration fee, vehicle excise tax, and weight tax). We can talk about adding fees for non-motorized vehicles (bicyclists) as well, such as the clever idea that all vehicles should be registered annually, with the fee based on weight.
Instead, somehow, Oregon environmental groups have decided to help preserve and extend the auto-dominated system by helping finagle more money for roads, instead of fighting to shift road funding onto road users.
And it’s not true that people who don’t drive should pay property taxes for roads or else they get an unearned benefit ("free rider"). People who don’t themselves drive on roads pay their share of roadway fees/taxes through the prices of the goods and services they use. As we shift the costs of roads onto the roads — rather than onto houses, farms, nursing homes, apartment complexes, and other property tax sources — we’ll see shifts in the costs of goods and services that reflect the amount of transport that they require … which should be the goal of any environmentalist (get the prices right) as well as any politician (cut general property taxes).
So while the ins and outs of gas taxes vs. mileage taxes can be fascinating sociologically and politically, the real answer is "Sorry, wrong question."
The right question is how fast we can cut taxes and millages that do not derive from road uses and how soon we can get to zero; on the way, we can have lots of good discussions about how to make up that revenue with the various use-based fees …