Friday, November 20, 2009

Tax By GPS


Do you want to recalculate? Like most GPS boxes, ours can ask that in various tones, languages and as man or woman. It's an apt question for the efforts to implement driver fees based on miles traveled instead of per gallon of gas.

In a post (also at BMG) about recently ex-transportation secretary of Massachusetts James Aloisi, I was certainly not surprised by what to me was nitpicking and literalism. I think though to those commenting, they were trying to add value, much as Talmudic scholars refine concepts through argument.

The mention of VMT (vehicle miles traveled) systems and pilots was one of Aloisi's proposals for transportation fixes that seemed most upsetting. At the least, there were calls for solid proof that this was viable technology.

The basic idea is simple enough. Cars in Massachusetts would get GPS chips installed, likely at annual inspection if they did not already have one. This miniature computer would report on how far the driver went at various times and total. The commonwealth would charge a fee in lieu of increased gas taxes that would be more for distance, more for traveling at rush hours, and less for rural distance.

That last part is a strong selling point. Those in Western Massachusetts and other exurban areas are given a break on the turnpike tolls with free travel out there. Yet, they still pay disproportionately for gas taxes in the sense their required commute, shopping and average trips are longer than in urban areas. Let's ignore that their housing and many other costs are lower than those of urban folk.

Another important objection would be the Big Brother aspect of the GPS. The pilots in Europe and the Puget Sound show that it is very easy to track the miles and times with no record of where a vehicle was or went, just how far and when.

Yet, the underlying question for me is why the devil bother? Short of a break for rural drivers, the current gas tax does the job. Drive more, pay more...flat and not increasingly as the natural gas and electric people hit us.

Unfortunately, there is a solid reason for looking at a GPS-based VMT system. Our General Court collectively lacks the vision and courage to raised the gas tax. It has been the same for 18 years, is lower than most states' and has not kept pace with inflation or the Consumer Price Index. As a driver as well as cyclist and mass-transit user I should likely bite my tongue, but we are underpaying. As a result, we are getting fewer road and T improvements and less maintenance. We suffer from the legislators' cowardice.

Our lawmakers are too incestuous and insular. They seem to have spread the no-new-taxes virus one to another. They believe that is what keeps them in office — cushy, well-paid, powerful employment.

While none of us wants to pay taxes, much less higher taxes, the lessons our parents and grandparents taught us seem to have gotten lost. Most important, delaying the essential is generally dumb, destructive and asking for worse in the future. Thus after Gov. Michael Dukakis, a series of Republican governors sang in a chorus with bipartisan legislators, "No new taxes! No new taxes." To accomplish this, they did such dumb deeds as deferring maintenance on highways and bridges. Now that infrastructure is in such bad shape and costs have inflated so much, we face crushing bills to do the minimal repairs that would have been much cheaper earlier.

Voters should be mad at both the government and themselves.

So even now, the legislature has turned down every funding source Gov. Deval Patrick proposes, including gas taxes. They instead look to the lie and failure of casino gambling and other fantasy fixes that have failed to provide lasting solutions anywhere.

Perhaps the fairly equitable VMT might pass the cowering, self-protective incumbents' test. They might enact that instead of the much easier, more obvious and long overdue gas-tax hike.

Truth be told, the VMT with GPS will layer expensive technology and a new accounting bureaucracy to accommodate it. Heck, the price of inspection would probably bump up to for the extra steps and materials.

We have an in-place system for collecting by distance traveled without the VMT system. That's the gas tax. Moreover, to be fair to rural drivers, we could give them a break at tax time, as state and federal governments do with various housing, sales tax and other accumulated expenses.

It's really time for the lawmakers to stop the silliness and raise the gas tax. We have other transportation issue to address.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Consumption taxes such as a gas tax, sales tax, etc are not the way to balance the budget. The higher the tax the less revenue will be collected because people will use the resource. This is seen with the sales tax, people stop buying large ticket items or buy out of state.

The MA government needs to make the hard decisions, cut the spending, and make a budget that is inline with income.

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