Former longtime President of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, Belmont resident
It’s past time to start testing a vehicle miles-traveled (VMT) fee. We need a reliable and fair way to fund transportation, and the gas tax is in long-term decline.
This is not a new idea. In 2007 the bipartisan Transportation Finance Commission, on which I served, unanimously concluded that “the Commonwealth should move to a system of direct user fees as the principal source of transportation funding using modern technology.”
We made this recommendation because, with hybrid vehicles and improved mileage cars, gas taxes are not keeping up with the ever rising costs of maintaining our highways and supporting public transportation. Massachusetts gas tax revenues (as a percent of state GDP) lost three quarters of their value between 1992 and 2013.
Vehicle miles traveled is a true user fee: The more you drive the more you pay, just as with electricity and water. The fee can also be adjusted to produce important benefits such as reducing congestion or carbon emissions or encouraging drivers to use public transportation. Furthermore, the fee can be adjusted so those in regions with limited alternatives to driving will not be penalized.
Massachusetts is choking with massive congestion on our roadways. Other states and countries have adopted some form of vehicle miles-traveled pricing to reduce congestion, providing incentives for motorists to drive at different times, to combine or reduce trips, or to switch to public transportation.
A vehicle miles-traveled charge can also address current inequities where some commuters pay tolls and others do not. Funding transportation should be distributed fairly across the state.
It will take many years to move to a comprehensive vehicle miles-traveled system, which is why other states have launched successful pilot programs. The Commonwealth should do the same, for example by testing a voluntary, revenue-neutral pilot program of road use charges for up to 500 Massachusetts drivers. Such a pilot would help state leaders and the public answer the privacy, fairness, and technology questions surrounding VMT.
Governor Baker’s Commission on the Future of Transportation will issue its report in a few weeks. That offers an excellent opportunity to lay out a roadmap to implement a vehicle miles-traveled system in Massachusetts.
State Representative, Newbury Republican
Before even discussing an invasive and unnecessary vehicle miles-traveled tax, it would be helpful to remember we already pay other taxes and fees to fund transportation infrastructure.
State and federal taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel were created specifically to fund roads and bridges. We also pay a local car excise tax and a 12 percent federal excise tax on the first retail sale of commercial vehicles, all intended for roads. That excise tax increases the price we pay for products, almost all of which are delivered by truck.
Larger trucks are charged various taxes and fees including “apportioned” plate fees, and fees for carrying loads above maximum levels. These too are passed on to the costs we pay for the products we buy.
On top of all this we pay tolls, state and federal income taxes, and local real estate taxes, all of which contribute to funding maintenance and repairs of roads and bridges. With all of these revenue sources already in place, having government tracking our travel is unnecessary and, I believe, an invasion of privacy those in power could conceivably use for unethical purposes.
Funding road repairs with fuel taxes is far more efficient and economical than a vehicle miles-traveled tax. No additional programs or bureaucracies are needed; we pay at the pump and gas stations pay the taxes. This also provides an incentive to buy more fuel-efficient vehicles and eliminate unnecessary trips, encouraging conservation.
More to the point, just about all wear and tear on roads is caused by heavy trucks, not cars, so it’s simply more fair and appropriate to have their use pay for the repairs. The heavier they are, and the more miles they drive, the more fuel they will burn and pay taxes on.
Massachusetts spends four times the national average on its roadways but our roads are rated among the nation’s worst, according to 2012 rankings by Reason Foundation. The best course of action is to find the waste and inefficiencies in our current system and use the savings for more repairs before even considering a new tax.
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