California is Setting the Stage for a Tax on Vehicle Miles Traveled

Evil_Odo.jpgA sign of the times?

When
USDOT Secretary Ray LaHood last month suggested that the country should
consider replacing the gas tax with a tax on vehicle miles traveled
(VMT) to compensate for the dwindling Highway Trust Fund, which is
primarily supported from gas taxes, the White House immediately
rebuffed him, assuring the public and angry editorial boards that Obama
had no such priority.  With a sluggish economy and greater fuel
efficiency in new vehicles, a VMT tax would replenish the Highway
Trust, though it would also allow planners and policy makers to develop
solutions for reducing greenhouse gas emissions through better land use
policies.

Several states, including Oregon, Washington,
Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Texas are studying the feasibility of
the transition and what infrastructure and technology would be needed
to plan for a VMT tax.  In 2001, Oregon DOT (ODOT) launched a study
called the the Oregon Mileage Fee Concept (PDF), and in April of 2006, ODOT tested GPS systems in vehicles belonging to several hundred volunteers.  Based on those findings, Oregon governor Theodore R. Kulongoski this year called for outfitting every Oregon vehicle
with a GPS device that would assess a tax at the pump based on how many
miles had been driven, regardless of the fuel efficiency of the vehicle.

In California last month, Assembly member Nancy Skinner of Alameda and Contra Costa counties introduced AB 1135,
which would require every motorist to report their odometer reading
when they register or renew their vehicle.  The state DMV would provide
overall VMT data publicly. It would theoretically be available through
fairly specific tracts to aid planning, though whether it would be by
block face, census tract, voter district, or county has yet to be
determined.

As the bill points out, accurate VMT data is
essential not only for immediate compliance with the greenhouse gas
reductions mandated in AB 32, but also for smarter regional planning
and the reduction of sprawl mandated in SB 375: 

More
accurate data about vehicle-miles-traveled–the mileage driven annually
by Californians–would provide essential information to guide local
transportation and land use planning. Location of transit corridor
improvements, light rail, bicycle paths, and high-occupancy freeway
lanes now depend on the estimates done by various state agencies, but
all of these projects would benefit from more accurate data. Better
data would also provide more consistent local and statewide estimates
for transportation planning, city planning, and air quality planning
efforts. The data would be essential in establishing long-term,
historical trends in vehicle use, traffic congestion, energy
consumption, and air quality measures, including ozone precursor
pollutants and greenhouse gases.

Picture_4.pngThis ABAG graph from a Joint Policy Committee presentation shows steady rise of VMT

One criticism of moving to a VMT tax from a gas tax is that the person
who purchased a more fuel efficient vehicle shouldn’t have to pay the same as
the person who still drives a big SUV.  By that logic, if a consumer
wants to drive a vehicle that pollutes more, they need to pay more at the pump.

Carli
Paine, TransForm’s Transportation Policy Director, said that line of
reasoning was flawed. "Even people who drive highly economical vehicles
have an impact on the roadways and ought to pay their share for upkeep.
A Prius contributes to traffic congestion just like a Mustang, but is
paying less into the account that addresses congestion and roadway wear
and tear."

Paine argued that odometer reporting would
likely not be the final method used for monitoring VMT, but that the
bill would allow planners to set targets to promote transit-oriented
development (TOD) and smart growth.  She said that living in close
proximity to one’s place of work cuts down on emissions and fuel
consumption better than any vehicle technology can.

"It’s hard to see how
we can be serious about setting regional targets for reducing driving,
without knowing how much driving is really taking place.  This bill would provide a significant boost to our efforts to curb
global warming pollution associated with driving and land use."

Paine
suggested that a Hummer driver living within a short distance of work
would use less gas than a Prius driver who commuted 120 miles each way,
as illustrated in this graph:

Picture_3.pngABAG graph showing the difference in gas consumption by commute distance and vehicle type

Another
criticism of altering the gas tax to a VMT tax centers on the concern
that government would know too much about individual driving patterns
if every vehicle had GPS or other tracking technology.  Those critics
have complained that placing GPS in vehicles to collect VMT data, or
even self-reporting of odometer information, would violate privacy
rights, though AB 1135 explicitly states that personal information
would not be public record.

In a recent Metropolitan
Transportation Commission (MTC) meeting, several commissioners brought
up privacy concerns.  MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger explained
that a good deal of information is already collected through routine
smog checks, self-reporting to insurance companies, and Fast Trak and
Translink monitoring, etc.

MTC spokesperson Randy
Rentschler said at the same meeting that "to some extent, this is an
imposition on motorists, but we have to get a good sense of how many
vehicle miles traveled we have… as [transportation] is the biggest
source of CO2 in the state.  FasTrak and Translink have privacy issues,
but those databases exist.  When we are given subpoenas by the police,
that’s the only time that we will release private data."

MTC
Commissioner and Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates said: "The privacy issue is
important, but the information is necessary and needed to plan and make
future decisions.  I think this is an important bill because we need to
get VMT and the methods that we use now are so complicated and arcane. 
We make assumptions about the impacts of TOD; now we could actually
start verifying these things."

The MTC Commission endorsed
the legislation at their March meeting. Commissioners Spring and Worth
were the only two members who voted against it, citing privacy
concerns.  Scuttlebut in the hall suggested they understood this was
the first step toward a VMT tax and they were positioning themselves
against the bill to please their suburban driving constituents.

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