Friday, June 7, 2013

VMT at a Federal Level??? Op-Ed

There has been much talk in class about the raising of funds to support our highway network as well as non-motorized projects. Since the conception of the highway trust fund it rolled out miles after miles of creating the suburbs. After the creation of the suburbs came the creation of the second ring suburbs and subsequently sprawl. With Oregon leading the way into a much cleaner Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) tax I cannot help but feels some hesitation. Will non-motorized activities get a cut of these new taxes collected?
With all sorts of taxes becoming more unpopular and the fuel taxes remaining at the same price and not adjusted to inflation thing are getting tight. This situation escalated by the reality of more and more people shifting to more fuel efficient cars or electric or partially electric vehicles. The question of equity also comes into play as too the older cheaper cars that use more gas are more likely to pay more in gas tax than a newer more fuel efficient car.
Fig: 1 Impacts  of inflation and fuel economy on federal motor fuel exercise tax [1]

When we look at the slow decline in the funds available in the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) this incentivizes many parties to rethink the way to collect the taxes needed to allow for the proper maintenance to our road and bridge projects. It seems more and more that these issues are shifting to a state level budgetary process and the federal government is less inclined to be a financial player in these projects. To strengthen the federal position I feel that we should institute VMT tax as a federal level to jump start our economy and infrastructure redevelopment.

The strengths of looking into the VMT tax could include the pricing of all of the extra effects that are produced by the vehicles travel. This includes gas admission and congestion pricing. Looking into pricing set up in this way it is quite possible to allow for the provision of extra funds to non-vehicular transportation. Be holding this program at a federal level it allows for a greater amounting of funds to be realized and directed to projects. It has been seen that the funds that make their way to the state for various projects without a perimeters on what they should be spent on rarely make their way to bike and pedestrian infrastructure. A way to seal up this gap is to create a pool of funds earmarked for different types of projects. The logic being that by supporting transit there is a reduction of congestion leading to less traffic volume to not need capacity expansion [1].         

The question of equity once again comes into question in regard to VMT. Looking to the individuals that commute the most in a personal vehicle are normally those commuting from the suburbs because they cannot afford housing prices in the down town area.  In this way it does not seem fair that individuals living in the peripheries of the city or rurally who have to drive further for their needed amenities should have to pay more than those in the city where proximity to good is higher. By creating this program at a federal level it would be easier to more equitably disperse funds to cities and rural areas.

There are many questions into the relative scale of payment from these individuals but it is certain that this pricing scheme holds many positive elements. First similar to the gas tax it is a tax on something you consume, if you consider driving consuming a good. In this way this tax incentivizes individuals to drive less or use other option which in turn reduces the amount of traffic on our densely populated roads. This can be seen as a positive change in that congestion is a large problem in cities. Also less drives helps to attribute less emissions which benefits the community as well.

Strength lies in the fact that there will be the ability to target certain groups for more road use and have a simple leaver by which to provide incentives or disincentive to these parties. For instance trucking in our country takes up a good deal on the roads and maintenance and the government could set the rate for these businesses based on a much larger criterion than the existing by axel weight tax. This would allow for the priority funds to go to supporting our infrastructure that supports the economic development which will in turn support more development.

Obviously there are concerns about creating VMT tax as a federal program because it is more often slotted for a state run tax. My feeling is by creating it as a federal program will allow for a greater impact in the way of infrastructure development. As a federal program it can be used to help support the individual states as funds to projects. The states can in turn come up with some funds as well to create a larger pool. There is also the support of the all the states playing into this charge so creates a large pool of finances.

The implementation is the major barrier in regard to this tax. In the age of privacy rights being lost many people could feel uncomfortable about giving the federal government a way to track where vehicles public and private are. This is combined with the questions on how you will get vehicles patched into this new system and who pays for this new systems development. If the federal government implemented and paid for the system it would take a lot of pressure of the individual states. In combination with the Departments of Transportation (DOTS) this program could be implemented with required inspections or relicensing of vehicles.     

[1] Greene, David “What is greener than a VMT tax? The case for an indexed energy user fee to finance us surface transportation” Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment, Volume 16, Issue 6, August 2011, Pages 451-458, <>.
[2] Handy, Susan. "Smart Growth and the Transportation-Land Use Connection: What Does the Research Tell Us?" International Regional Science Review 28.146 (2008): n. pag.Sage Journals.      International Regional Science Review. Web.                 < html>.

[3] Sorenson, Paul, Liisa Ecola, and Martin Wachs. "Mileage-Based User Fees For Transportation Funding A Primer for State and Local Decisionmakers." RAND Corporation, 2012. Web. <>.

[4] Wang, Y., Hansson, L., Sha, N., Ding, Y., Wang, R., & Liu, J. (2013). Strategic assessment of fuel taxation in energy conservation and CO reduction for road transportation: a case study from China.              Stochastic Environmental Research & Risk Assessment, 27(5), 1231-1238. doi:10.1007/s00477-012-0659-9

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