Friday, May 20, 2011

For what we pay, we deserve the best

With the White House reluctant to raise fuel taxes, the question on a lot of people’s minds is “how the heck are we going to pay for the next surface transportation bill?”

Is the nation headed for a tax based on vehicle miles traveled, or VMT? We’ve seen headlines recently saying “Forget the fuel tax” and “Mileage tax could replace gas tax.”

But these are just headlines for now, and even though U.S. Transportation Secretary LaHood tested the waters by saying we should consider a VMT tax, the president does not appear to be on board. That being said, the administration did include a VMT study in its budget request, and a version of that is being floated in the president’s working draft of the highway bill.

The question I have is, would a VMT tax be a true and proper replacement for the fuel tax, or would it simply be another tax heaped on top of what users already pay?

This is why it’s still premature to get behind a VMT proposal.

If there was a one-for-one switch, and it was seamless, the concept might work, but to this point, we’ve seen no guarantees that it would make the tried and true method obsolete.

I say “tried and true” because the fuel tax has been around since the Eisenhower era and has gotten us this far. While many people claim the fuel tax is not sustainable, it could be, but only as long as the people holding the purse strings and setting policy allow it to happen.
Highway funds have been hijacked for years, but somehow we still have an amazing system. We seem to be outgrowing it, but only because the red-tape, political jargon and raids on the highway fund allow it to happen.

Users do not want to see the highway system crumble and become obsolete, and they are willing to pay their fair share, as they do now, to have good infrastructure.

Early estimates are that a six-year surface transportation bill could cost $550 billion. That has the politicians and policymakers filling our heads about the need for new revenue streams – as long as it doesn’t raise fuel taxes.

Before we talk about paying more, or adding a VMT tax or making every road a toll road, let’s address the diversion and waste first.

If we are truly at a crossroads as people are saying, the hijacking of highway funds for non-highway programs simply cannot continue. If we stop the diversion and still find that we need to pay more for infrastructure, we can sit down like civilized human beings and talk about it.

We have a great system now, built by Americans for Americans, and the users of that system deserve for it to be properly preserved and maintained.