For years, opponents of suburban sprawl and those concerned about global warming have been among those arguing for a simple gas tax that would encourage fuel efficiency and create disincentives to wasteful driving. The idea is to correct an economic "externality": The cost of dealing with all the pollution from burning fossil fuels and developing far-flung suburbs isn't paid at the pump.
Congress, for the most part, cowered in the face of the idea, since supporting any new tax in America risks political suicide. But now, Congress appears to be coming around to a new idea: a tax on the number of miles you drive. Like the current gasoline tax, this money would be used to pay for highways and other transportation needs.
The Obama Administration opposes a mileage tax, but there's growing support in Congress, according to McClatchy.
There's still support among some environmentalists, given that a mileage tax would carry some of the same disincentives to driving that a fuel tax would. Fiscal watchdogs favor it because an increase in fuel efficient vehicles would ultimately hobble the ability to raise money from a gas tax.
But critics point out that, unlike a gas tax, a mileage tax doesn't offer any incentive to buy fuel-efficient vehicles. A low-carbon fuel standard, a carbon cap-and-trade regulation or other laws may increase the price of gas, creating the same disincentive that a straight tax would, as well as fuel economy upgrades mandated by Congress could accomplish the same thing, however. (Critics are also concerned about privacy, if GPS were to be used to monitor one's miles driven.)
Since most of the money generated by a tax would flow back into the building and repairing of highways and bridges, the entire conversation involves supporting a car-dependent society. What about public transportation?
New numbers out today from the American Public Transportation Association indicate that 2008 saw a 4 percent increase in the public's usage of trains, buses and ferries. Vehicle miles driven dropped almost as much, 3.6 percent. Everyone sees that shift as a response to the extraordinary run-up in gas prices; lower prices and the recession -- which is keeping more people at home while they're out of work, and leading governments to cutback on public transportation service -- are expected to lead to a decrease in public transportation usage in 2009.
Ensuring Americans have fuel-efficient public transportation options should be a high priority for any transportation spending -- whether the money comes from a mileage tax, a gas tax or some other source.
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