BLOOMINGTON, Ind. - Increases in miles per gallon mean less gasoline is consumed. That means less fuel tax revenue for highways. Unless new revenue is found, the result is more potholes and more traffic jams.
Many experts believe we should eliminate the fuel tax and replace it with a user fee based on the number of miles we drive.
The first challenge is finding an accurate way to determine the number of miles you drive.
You could begin with self-reporting based on a visual inspection of the odometer when you register your car. To discourage fraudulent reporting, public servants could compare reported mileage with an estimate based on data from CARFAX reports, insurance companies, auto service centers and a driver profile.
Technologically advanced mileage user-fees are feasible but come with privacy and cost concerns. However, those worries are fading as automakers build cars with Internet and GPS devices and more insurance companies adopt pay-as-you-drive policies.
Therefore, it may be possible for the government to rely on the data collected by insurance companies to implement the mileage user-fee. The most important feature of these developments is that they are driven by market forces. Therefore, making this option available to drivers on a voluntary basis should reduce privacy and cost concerns that have plagued the idea of a mandatory mileage user-fee.
Switching to a mileage user-fee would provide several advantages over the current fuel tax.
The tax may persuade us to reduce needless trips and combine errands, car-pool or use public transportation and it's simply fairer than the current system. Drive more, pay more.
Additionally, a GPS-based mileage user fee allows policymakers to address multiple issues with one policy, as a GPS is able to track miles driven in real time.
For example, a surcharge could be implemented for heavier vehicles, driving during peak hours in congested areas and driving on particular bridges or expressways - similar to a toll.
Two hurdles remain. Would it invade your privacy and what would it cost to implement?
Both need more study, but if you use "location services" on your smart phone, you're already being tracked. Having third parties like insurance companies count the miles could reduce the fear that Uncle Sam is watching.
Research on cost should focus on low-tech solutions. Could motor vehicle registries create and store driver profiles that would allow them to predict the user fee for each vehicle?
There is never an easy time to propose a new tax, even one that replaces an existing tax with a user-fee.
Fortunately, the ongoing fiscal debates in Congress may lead eventually to comprehensive tax reform. Such a bill could include the replacement of the fuel tax with a mileage user-fee.
The alternative is inevitably more broken roads and bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Yes, it's fairer than what we have
Every Monday we offer pro/con pieces from the McClatchy-Tribune News Service to give readers a broad view of issues.
Denvil R. Duncan is an assistant professor in the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs, and John D. Graham is dean of the school.