Tuesday, September 06, 2011

The idea whose time has not yet come

Steven Dornfeld has what I hope is an op-ed piece up at MinnPost, because it is unabashed boosterism for mileage-based transportation taxes, instead of the gas taxes we have now. This is a really stupid idea, for reasons I'll explore in more depth in a moment, but first consider the "article's" subhead, its premise:
Americans are traveling more — causing more wear and tear to the roads — and paying less to maintain the system.
Uh, not exactly, Steve!
U.S. motorists drove a mere 1.45 trillion miles in the first half of 2011—15.5 billion miles less than they did in the first half of 2010, according to preliminary figures from the Federal Highway Administration.

It was the first time year-over-year mileage declined in the first half of the year since 2004. Analysts say unemployment worries, high fuel prices and a sluggish economy caused Americans to drive less.

The number of miles driven per year in the U.S. peaked in 2007 at 3.02 trillion miles. Last year the total was 3 trillion miles, up from a six-year low of 2.97 trillion miles in 2009.
A strictly mileage-based system would charge the owners of a Prius and Hummer the same amount per mile, even though the far heavier Hummer takes a bigger toll on the highways. It would also diminish the incentive to buy the lighter Prius.

That doesn't sound fair -- or especially bright -- to me.

Moreover, a mileage-based tax would be subject to the same diminution as the gas tax if miles driven declines.

The transportation "experts" that Dornfeld cites say the gas tax system is not "sustainable." So, instead of raising gas taxes to cover the shortfall, an entirely new tax is proposed that would be a nightmare to enforce or administer.

There would be various ways to calculate the miles driven, according to Dornfeld, from odometer checks to GPS-based systems.

Hahahahahahahahahaha. Sorry.

We Americans are an ingenious bunch; the idea of just using a car's odometer to measure how many miles a car has been driven is astonishingly naive. Car odometers are about as accurate as pedometers to begin with, and by the time people got done changing tire sizes and employing all the schemes that people will come up with to decrease the numbers wracked up on the odometer, the public's confidence that everyone is being treated fairly won't exist.

And how will the odometer be checked? Just have the motorist call in the numbers? There is a reason that the gas and electric companies have someone come out to read the meter.

Maybe somebody from MNDOT will just come by and knock on your door every quarter or so and ask to see the cars in your garage. Oh, you're eating? Sorry! Won't be a minute! Maybe you will go to a MNDOT mileage station, conveniently located in Hugo and Grand Forks (think of the jobs!) every month or two. Many of you remember how well those state inspection stations were received.

What about the GPS, you say? Imagine that the computer system at MNDOT goes down for a day, or even an hour. Imagine having a government computer that knows where your car is every moment of every day. Imagine installing a GPS in every car in Minnesota, and think about how easy it would be to translate trip information into average speed. Wouldn't your insurance company love to check and see if you have a lead foot?

Even assuming we have somehow managed to collect the mileage driven by every mother's son (and daughter) in Minnesota, have we put a dime in the state's coffers yet? Nope. The money still has to be collected. How are we going to do that? Send a bill every year? (And hope to collect it.) That doesn't sound like very good cash flow management to me.

What about a bill every month? Maybe each week? I know! We could be required to pay mileage withholding every month, and then settle up with MNDOT at the end of the year. Right. Let's take a tax the is sublimely easy to calculate and collect and turn it into a companion of the income tax.

Imagine, if you will, that you go into a store and buy a hundred bucks worth of stuff. Instead of paying the sales tax at the counter, the merchant sends a note to the Department of Revenue informing it of the transaction, and the department sends you a bill for the $6.50 in tax.

This a ludicrous idea; it is too bad that Dornfeld reported it so uncritically.

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