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'Mileage tax' idea shot down by White House

After Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood suggests motorists might someday face a levy based on miles driven, Obama's press secretary says it 'will not be the policy' of the administration.

February 21, 2009|Rebecca Cole

WASHINGTON — As quickly as talk of taxing mileage instead of gasoline surfaced in the Obama Cabinet on Friday, the White House sank it.

Concerned that traditional gas taxes cannot keep pace with the cost of building and repairing highways, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said he was considering taxing motorists according to miles driven.

But President Obama has no interest in such a tax, the White House swiftly said.

"I can weigh in on it, and say that it is not and will not be the policy of the Obama administration," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

The concept, which would require tracking devices in taxpayers' vehicles, strikes critics as a huge invasion of privacy.

It has been road-tested in some places and deemed a viable alternative to gas taxes.

LaHood suggested that the federal government should take the concept seriously. "We should look at the vehicular miles program where people are actually clocked on the number of miles that they traveled," the Transportation secretary -- the only registered Republican in the Cabinet -- told the Associated Press.

There is wide agreement that the nation's aging roads and bridges are in dire need of maintenance and repair, but revenue from the federal gas tax is not enough to cover those projects. Last fall, Congress injected $8 billion to cover the shortfall.

And with the advent of fuel-efficient and electric cars, experts say, revenue from the gas tax will continue to dwindle.

"One of the things I think everyone agrees with . . . is that the highway trust fund is an antiquated system for funding our highways," said LaHood, a former Illinois congressman. "It did work to build the interstate system and it was very effective."

He continued: "The big question now is . . . how are we going to take care of our infrastructure needs with a highway trust fund that had to be plussed up by $8 billion by Congress last year?"

The idea of taxing motorists for how far they drive, rather than the gas they burn, has been tested in Oregon.

With a $2.1-million grant from the Federal Highway Administration, the state in 2006 outfitted two service stations in the Portland area with mileage-reading technology and recruited 260 volunteers to have passive, receiving-only GPS devices implanted in their vehicles. The tracking counted their mileage, but didn't record their locations.

The Oregon Department of Transportation called the pilot program a "proof-of-concept" success, and last month Democratic Gov. Theodore R. Kulongoski presented recommendations to the Legislature to move away from the gas tax as a central funding source for transportation.

James Whitty, manager of the state Office of Innovative Partnerships and Alternative Funding, said the test proved the technology viable, but added that people have "visceral reactions" when they hear abut the concept -- especially on the issue of privacy.

But Whitty said he has found that once the system is explained to people, they gradually come around. "Just like TV or radio, which doesn't send a signal out to know what you're watching, the passive GPS device in the car can't be followed," Whitty said.

With electric vehicles ready for a mass market as soon as 2012, Whitty said now was the "perfect time" for what is known as a VMT plan -- for vehicle miles traveled -- so automakers can incorporate the mileage-reading technology into their designs.

"I think this mileage charging system is inevitable. But what the nation needs to do is sort through all the options," he said. "We have to recognize that we need to move to a new system, one that is the most efficient and most acceptable to the consumer."

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rcole@tribune.com

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