As if the $1.2 trillion “infrastructure” bill in Congress could not be worse, a closer look shows that among other bad ideas there is $125 million allocated to fund the creation of pilot programs to evaluate a federal vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax.
The idea behind the VMT tax is to tax drivers for every mile they drive, which could address both traffic congestion and the increasing supposed shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund. This shortfall is caused in part by lower gas tax revenue (lower than some desire, that is) due to more fuel-efficient vehicles and the increased use of electric vehicles (EVs) that don’t pay fuel taxes, as well as by inflated costs of building and maintaining roads and bridges.
How would a VMT work? In short, it won’t. But let’s play along with the fantasy.
One method would be to require a GPS device in every vehicle which would transmit your vehicle’s data to the federal government. Thankfully, in 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that such a requirement would be unconstitutional.
A second method would be annual odometer readings done at vehicle inspections; this would likely just incentivize fraud. The IRS would have to assume the responsibility of auditing the odometers of roughly 289.5 million registered vehicles. Doesn’t that sound fun?
Oregon and Utah are two of the first states to launch state-level pilot programs.
Oregon’s VMT tax trial participants have three options to sign up for—two privately run systems and one administered by the state’s Department of Transportation. The private companies allocate devices to drivers which log location and distance travelled, then send out tax bills and remit the taxes to the state.
State programs operate on a small scale, while the proposed national system would require the feds to track hundreds of millions of vehicles.
Remember, the federal government does not have $1.2 trillion available, as some of the bill is being funded with unspent, previously authorized funds, but the new spending could add at least $250 billion to an already bloated national debt. Despite President Biden’s call to ease the financial burden on America’s lower-income earners, these policies will prove to be most detrimental to them.
Consider the ongoing 2018 Two-Hundred lawsuit against the California Air Resources Board (CARB) aimed at stopping the implementation of its multi-billion dollar “scoping plan.” The plan’s goals included a “net zero” emissions requirement, a numeric per capita threshold, a mandated VMT tax, and a “vibrant communities appendix.” The costs to fund this plan disproportionately harm low- and moderate-income families and negatively influence the state’s economy.
Such policies continue to drive up housing costs, contributing to their homelessness problem.
VMT taxes will place an additional financial penalty on low-income families who can’t afford to—or choose not to—live in urban centers. Urban inhabitants are forced to move out of urban areas, then charged even more for doing so by imposing a tax on lengthy commutes.
Gas and VMT taxes create an unnecessary burden on taxpayers, as they are funneled through third-party channels, increasing the costs. They also discourage driving, which will inevitably hurt employment and upward mobility. Both taxes increase the price of consumer goods and have a negative impact on economic growth.
The U.S. shouldn’t impose a VMT tax to make up for a lower gas taxes collected. Instead, transportation spending should come from general revenue, which it has since 2008. Also, more affordable ways of providing transportation should be considered instead of repeating the same costly mistakes.
The federal government needs to quit piling on new taxes and subsidies that hurt those most who can least afford less opportunities available to flourish. Instead, Congress should focus on unleashing the power of the free market to make energy (which affects everything we do) more affordable.
It is time to reexamine why such a large transportation-related deficit is automobile-centered and face the fact that it is unsustainable. Adding and raising taxes thrusts our constitutional republic towards an autocratic order, which along with irresponsible spending should be rejected in favor of responsible spending that better helps all Americans, especially low-income earners.
This commentary originally appeared in The Cannon Online on August 19, 2021.