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Big Brother on the road

POSTED September 24, 2012 3:14 p.m.

Tougher fuel efficiency standards have the potential to turn our freeways and highways into havens for potholes.

The Congressional Budget Office is projecting a $57 billion loss in federal gas tax funds through 2023 due to the new federal fuel efficiency standards that have just been adopted. The revenue reduction — roughly 13 percent less than what was originally projected just a year ago — will also impact separate gas tax collections for roadways in the various states including California.

That means people we are elected to the state and federal levels this November should be pressed as to what they favor doing to make up the revenue gap so as not to let our highways and freeways completely deteriorate.

Among the remedies being floated are taxing miles driven, creating more and more toll roads, indexing the current gas tax to inflation, taxing oil at the refinery instead with the tax being collapsed into the gallon price, and slapping an annual tax on cars.

There is one common theory behind all five options — those who use roads should pay for them.

Of course, the current state gas tax in California does that but it also makes those who use the roads subsidize them for bicyclists and those who use buses, and also subsidizes passenger rail service . The theory is that by doing so the state is taking pressure off the roads. Still, it isn’t a pure users fee as it transfers “wealth” to subsidize other forms of transportation.

The option favored the most by transit experts is the taxing of miles driven. It is what the Bay Area Council of Governments wants to use for a regional tax to cover road projects in the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area.

Such a tax would require Global Positioning Systems (GPS units) complete with transmitters on your vehicle. Such a system is already being tested in Minnesota that sends drivers a monthly tax bill based on miles driven.

Such systems can be designed to keep track of where you drive — in state or out of state — as well as when you drive. That way you can be charged more if you are in certain congested roads at the heaviest traffic time. And you’d also be taxed by jurisdictions whose roads you use. It would be government’s way of modifying your driving behavior to reduce congestion and making sure if you use it you help pay for it whether it is in your own state or six states away.

On the surface, it seems like a reasonable plan. You would pay taxes based on how much you drive, basically paying for what you use.

But there’s one little problem: Do you really want the government to be able to track your every move?

Variations of the tax per mile system aren’t much better but for other reasons.

One option would be for drivers’ odometers to be read at the Department of Vehicles once a year when they renew their registration. The only problem with that is you’d be hit with a rather large tax bill all at once. There’d also probably be a bustling cottage industry emerging on ways to tamper with odometers without being detected.

The miles driven tax option means those with electric cars won’t escape taxation. Therefore it would reduce the savings from not paying for gas and the combined state and federal gas taxes that come to 67.7 cents in California. The state’s gas tax is the highest in the nation in a dead heat with New York.

It would also mean those who commute long distances, such as from Manteca to San Jose, would be hit the hardest unless, of course, they carpooled or took public transportation like Altamont Commuter Express and surface public transit in the Santa Clara Valley.

At any rate, the future of how we tax for roads obviously has to change.

You will notice, though, no politician is even bringing it up even though it is clear that something must be done and be done fairly quickly.

 This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Journal or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. 

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