Transportation Policy

Don't Track Me, Bro! Glenn Reynolds on Mileage-Based Gas Tax


Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit comes out against replacing the gas tax with a mileage-based levy, which would likely be assessed via a GPS-style "black box" installed in cars. The irony behind the reform idea? People are burning less gasoline, which is one of the goals of transportation policy. But that means government collects less money from the gax tax.

From Road & Track:

The response in many places—from Oregon to New Jersey and points in between—has been to propose taxing people based on the miles that they drive rather than on the gas that they burn.  There are even test programs going on in several states in which GPS trackers are being used to collect drivers' mileage.  Needless to say, this sort of thing has people worried about privacy, especially in the wake of the recent scandals involving government spying and abuse of data.  It also raises the question of whether, by moving to a mileage tax, we're giving up on trying to get people to save gas….

After noting that tracking drivers in this way creeps out privacy advocates, Reynolds further notes:

Simpler still, of course, would be an increase in the gas tax.  Politicians don't like that, because tax increases are never popular, and gas is already expensive enough.  But, of course, the mileage tax would be a tax increase too, since the whole reason it's being proposed is because the highway administrators want more money than they're getting now.  If you're going to pay more anyway, why give up your privacy to boot, just so that politicians can pretend something else is going on?  And the gas tax is still a pretty good proxy for road use:  The heavier the vehicle and the more it drives, the more gas it burns and the more tax its owner pays.  Hybrids get better mileage (though often no better than diesels) but that's not enough to undermine this much, and pure-electric cars are a tiny fraction of those on the road, and that isn't likely to change any time very soon.

Read the whole thing here.

The federal gas tax hasn't increased in about 20 years and, unlike most levies, is more clearly designed as a user fee—the money collected is supposed to be used for highway and infrastructure upkeep (though it's often diverted to other purposes). Note that Adrian Moore of Reason Foundation favors trying out the black boxes. He believes that privacy concerns can be addressed while getting more accurate tallies. From an LA Times story:

Wonks call it a mileage-based user fee. It is no surprise that the idea appeals to urban liberals, as the taxes could be rigged to change driving patterns in ways that could help reduce congestion and greenhouse gases, for example. California planners are looking to the system as they devise strategies to meet the goals laid out in the state's ambitious global warming laws. But Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, has said he, too, sees it as the most viable long-term alternative. The free marketeers at the Reason Foundation are also fond of having drivers pay per mile.

"This is not just a tax going into a black hole," said Adrian Moore, vice president of policy at Reason. "People are paying more directly into what they are getting."

More here.

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  1. I need to nip that in the bud.

  2. Why would you need GPS for this?

    1. Stop asking questions

    2. So that the government knows, at any time, where your car is.

      What did you think?

      1. I figured as much. It’s just really obvious that if you wanted to measure # of miles traveled, there’s an odometer….

        1. What about road cars that also get used on the track, or off road, or the mileage one racks up in private driveways and parking lots? The only way to separate those uses from public road travel, without people cheating* on their driving claims, would be with intrusive GPS tracking.

          *Cheating taxes is not actually cheating.

          1. Paying any more taxes than you absolutely have to, is like giving a keg of whiskey to an alcoholic!

        2. I’m just saying I do not wish to pay the government for one inch of driving in Target’s parking lot (which fuel taxes already kind of make us do).

          Not to mention the lawnmower, the snowblower, the weedeater, the power boat, the light sport airplane. Speaking of which, all of those things get totally fucked up by government-mandated ethanol.

    3. Because users of congested roads should pay more than users of clear roads.

      1. Users should pay whatever the private toll road companies charge if they want to use roads.

        1. And you would expect them to price based on demand. The most popular routes and times would charge more.

          1. You can do that without tracking cars…

            1. For example, the stretch of interstate 5 between San Diego and Los Angeles. There is a toll lane and the tolls are based on the level of congestion on the freeway.

    4. I bet one of the rationalizations is that they need to stop counting miles when you leave the jurisdiction, which is not just the state, but counties and cities — which roads get your taxes?

      Even if it were just states, they’d claim too many cheaters would log out when driving out of state, then come back in on some other unmonitored route, drive around a lot, then sneak back out and come back in legitimately. But about the only way I can see that is stuffing it into the back of a U-haul.

      And anyone living in Rhode Island or Delaware would get pretty cranky having to log in and out twice a day for a job across the state line.

      1. Most county and city roads are financed by property taxes – not gas taxes.

        It is state and federal roads that use the gas tax as a financing mechanism.

      2. Or crossing the border into Mexico.

  3. “This is not just a tax going into a black hole”


    1. Yeah, that’s kind of weird to see a politician admit that there are those kinda things out there and, seriously, *THIS* is not one of *THEM*.

    2. Huh?

      That was my exact response as well. It’s kind of sad that there are people at Reason who don’t seem to understand that raising taxes does nothing but enable bigger and bigger government, but this is the direction they’ve been going in for years.

    1. ObamaAuto will make that mandatory.

    2. I just can’t wait until the NSA uses the data-collection arguments for insurance tracking data as well.

  4. “taxes could be rigged to change driving patterns in ways that could help reduce congestion and greenhouse gases, for example.”

    or DERP

    1. The connection between fuel taxes and libertarianism is highly obscure, indeed.

  5. It is no surprise that the idea appeals to urban liberals, as the taxes could be rigged to change driving patterns in ways that could help reduce congestion and greenhouse gases, for example.

    That’s ridiculous. More jobs — and safety — are created by posting police at every intersection to redirect traffic.

  6. I’d rather have more of a gas tax and less income tax, but if you put a black box in my car, I’m tearing it out and leaving it in the desert.

    1. “Note that Adrian Moore of Reason Foundation favors trying out the black boxes. He believes that privacy concerns can be addressed while getting more accurate tallies.”

      Privacy concerns can be addressed to whose satisfaction, Adrian Moore’s?

      The privacy concerns can be addressed to my satisfaction by ripping the black box out of my car and leaving it in the desert.

      1. As I recall, folks like Moore point out that there’s no reason to send actual tracking information to government.

        All the boxes NEED to do is report how much you owe in taxes. Government can tell the boxes (through various mechanisms) how much a road costs to drive down, and the box keeps a count.

        There’s no need for location or even mileage information to ever be reported to make this work.

        1. This could easily be done in a privacy safe way, it’s just that no one trusts the government to implement it as such.

        2. And the NSA has already proven how the govt would never abuse such a thing….

    2. ” but if you put a black box in my car, I’m tearing it out and leaving it in the desert.”

      Too. Late

  7. It wouldn’t replace the current gas tax; it would be in addition to the current gas tax.

  8. Serious Q: Why the hell is Sarvis backing this tax?

    1. For the same reason that Bob Poole is. They used to talk about this sort of thing in the old days because even gas taxes are more interesting than a Tibor Machan essay. Then VP came along and we stopped talking about roads.

    2. Apparently he’s not intelligent enough to understand that raising taxes does nothing but enable bigger and bigger and bigger government.

      Which is kind of sad, because that’s Libertarianism 101.

  9. What they need to do is build a government website where people can shop for available car insurance in each state, and then they can choose which black box will work best for their particular automobile based on their coverage availability.

    You could call it, and you could let the states decide whether or not-

    /shoots self in face

  10. What if you drive a 40-year old truck with a non-functional odometer like I do?

    BTW, Sarvis is for this shit.

    Cooch makes the cosmos insane with his anti-sodomy gaffs, but he’s the more libertarian of the two candidates.

    1. Magic box.

    2. If you like your truck, you can keep it

  11. Another less-invasive solution is a mercury switch in every car that turns the engine off when going downhill.

    1. Another less-invasive solution is a mercury switch in every car that turns the engine off when going downhill.

      Solution to what?

      Were you listening to Reynolds story?

      So you have no frame of reference here, Rich. You’re like a child who wanders into the middle of a movie and wants to know…

      1. Note to self: Use less-subtle sarcasm.

  12. Not just Adrian Moore, but Reason’s Bob Poole was stumping for a tracking based tax in his transportation newsletter. So is Randal O’Toole of Cato and sometime Reason contributor/article mentionee.

    I get that they like this user fee concept but to think that any promises about privacy will be kept is just absurd. The first time little abducted Janie could have been found, it’s all going out the window.

    1. A box can gather the telemetry and report it at the owner’s request. To the revenuers, report just the cost. To do your own audit, report all trips. For the NSA, report also who was in the car with you.

      1. And enable an “un-hackable kill switch” for use by our Heroes in blue?, when deemed necessary for public safety, (e.g. High speed chases/ suspected DUI/ stroking their authority boners, and lording it over the peons/ etc…)

      2. Thanks for including that last one. Even without the NSA, a warrant backed by probable cause would be all that were necessary to give government access to the box and whatever data it had recorded. I’m all for recording (permanently) no more data than absolutely necessary for the driver to operate the car safely on the roads. An odometer already does this for mileage, primarily as a fairly decent proxy for true vehicle age (actual wear-and-tear).

    2. User fees are in no way libertarian, if the roads are still government controlled.

      1. reason usually advocates leasing out the tolls. A state agency could use profit maximizing pricing but probably wouldn’t.

  13. State agency fails to prioritize spending, demands taxpayers be fleeced for more. News at eleven.

    1. It’s worse than that in Oregon. The state has been subsidizing plugins and hybrid vehicle purchases, subsidizing free public charging stations, and blowing millions to “study” a non existant problem on both in house staff and a favored perrenial tit sucking contractor. Simple solutions such as raising gas taxes (already high compared to many states) or increasing electric only/ plugin vehicle registration fees are rejected out of hand as impractical.

  14. The federal gas tax hasn’t increased in about 20 years…

    Not so with state gas taxes, however.

  15. Reason should do some coverage on the crony capitalist, eminent domain disaster Illiana Expressway, as that issue develops.

  16. There is a dude that seems to know whats going on over there.

  17. The article should have touched on the privacy-protecting proposals out there.

    For example, some point out that the black box only needs to report taxes owed. They absolutely don’t need to report or even record any location information, so long as they track the fee being accrued.

  18. This piece of writing is really a fastidious one it helps new net people, who are wishing in favor of blogging.

    1. Wow, that’s really interesting. I must reference you to, they’re very receptive to requests from guest-bloggers, they could surely help you spread the word.

  19. Maybe instead of looking to raise revenue, the government could maybe look for ways to spend less.

    Just kidding, that will never happen.

  20. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. The whole point of cutting back on gasoline was to help protect this delicate flower that has managed to survive four billion plus years before Al Gore saved it and what is their response? You selfish assholes aren’t paying enough! This fucking tax will be added on to every other petty tax the state can muster. Here in the People’s Republic of Illinois we have high state gas taxes as well as a tollway system you pay to use. A per mile tax would just be heaped on an already crippled economy here. The I-Pass was also voluntary until the politicians wanted to track your driving speed and issue speeding tickets everywhere you went. But, yeah, the gubberment would NEVER do anything like that, right?

  21. Those bastards have no intention at all of REPLACING any tax with a new tax.


  22. Tax by the mile assumes everyone is driving a Toyota Prius type car getting great gas mileage. The problem with this is government is taxing gas guzzlers like Ford Expadition the same as a Prius which means a loss of taxes.

  23. It seems like there needs to be more than just a mileage charge at work with such a scheme. At least the fuel tax does a fair bit of factoring in weight/size into the cost since larger vehicles typically use more fuel, but a straight mileage tax would charge a Hummer the same price to drive a stretch of road as a Prius. In the short term it seems like it would make more sense to just increase the fuel tax, since one goal of the government is to encourage more fuel efficient cars be used. Raising the gas tax does that, but a mileage tax that does not take into account the vehicle used does not.

  24. Note that Adrian Moore of Reason Foundation favors trying out the black boxes.

    If we’re going to have a new tax, I propose we levy one on cocktail parties.

    1. How about just a tax on cocks?

      Mostly cause I don’t have any roosters, and honestly, eggs are kind of a crappy breakfast food.

  25. I love all the Laurie Bird movies but Art Garfunkel’s hottest suicidal girlfriend was the Milena character played by a young Theresa Russell.

  26. I was going to comment on this story the other day: I saw an article on ABC or some such that stated Libertarians were in favor of such “gas usage” taxes.

    1: Libertarians (generally speaking) don’t favor any taxes.
    2: Libertarians (all of them) SURE AS FUCK don’t favor any tax that involves tracking where they’ve been and where they’re going.

    1. It’s just those douchebags at the Reason Foundation giving the other libertarian-statists a bad name.

  27. Well the first thing that should be done is for the feds to quit diverting 20% of every federal gas tax dollar collected into a fund that’s used for mass transit boondoggles, bike paths, greenways, etc. etc.

    If the gas tax is supposed to be a user fee for drivers, then 100% of the money collected from drivers should go directly to roads and bridges construction, repairs and maintenance.

    Let the mass transit riders and bike riders pay for their own stuff.

    The second thing that should be done is to repeal the Davis-Bacon Act.
    It’s nothing but a purely political giveaway to labor unions that has been driving up the taxpayers costs on all federal construction projects (not just roads) ever since the 1930’s by effectively making contractors use overpriced union labor. There’s no telling how many billons if not trillions of dollars of the taxpayers money has been wasted over that long timespan due to this.

    Do those two things first and then see how that improves the financial picture of the highway trust fund before contemplating increasing gas taxes by any means.

    1. Proggies say that the road infrastructure and automobiles are already over-subsidized beyond the funds collected via registration, driver licenses, and State and Federal fuel taxes. I have said since the very first that I am completely willing to take whatever level of infrastructure can be purchased with those funds and ONLY those funds, if all the other “alternative transportation” projects and other, non-transportation projects must find other sources of financing. I’m betting that all of this money would fund a great roadway infrastructure, but perhaps not leave little or nothing left for utopian schemes or as “supplemental income” for States and localities, as has often been the case with car registration fees and fuel taxes in California.

  28. “Note that Adrian Moore of Reason Foundation favors trying out the black boxes. He believes that privacy concerns can be addressed while getting more accurate tallies.”

    So, a VP at Reason is in favor of raising taxes and giving the government data that will undermine privacy, and is going on the record with this so statists can say “hey, even those crazy libertarians favor this!”

    What’s next, Reason endorsing sensible small increases in the amount TSA agents can grope you?

    1. You can increase one tax without increasing taxes. We could raise road use taxes and eliminate excise taxes on fuel.

      1. You can increase one tax without increasing taxes. We could raise road use taxes and eliminate excise taxes on fuel.

        And then, the real world happened where that isn’t true AT ALL. There isn’t a snowball’s chance in Hell such a tax is going to replace an existing tax. The legislators (you know, the guys who have some actual political power, not some nobody fuckwit who is editor/VP of an organization almost nobody outside the libertarian community has ever heard of) who are proposing it aren’t even hinting that such a tax would replace the excise taxes. In fact, all of their talk indicates that it is expressly designed to complement the existing tax structure.

        WTF is wrong with the gas and tire excise tax anyway? It is a road use tax, one that doesn’t require any modifications to current vehicles or the possibility (who the fuck is anybody kidding, THE ABSOLUTE CERTAINTY) of government snooping.

        1. This. I love how he says “we” as though he’s the one actually making the decision, and not the liberals who control everything.

  29. “The federal gas tax hasn’t increased in about 20 years and, unlike most levies, is more clearly designed as a user fee”

    This is what I don’t understand – if the gas tax is actaully a user fee (and it mostly is) then if people are using less gas, funneling less money into the road maintenance funds, then just RAISE THE TAX to cover the costs.

    This has multiple benefits – no need to spend mone designing and implementing a new scheme to get money to pay for roads *and* has the added benefit of encouraging people to switch to more smaller (creating less wear and tear on the roads) and more efficient vehicles (less pollution).

    1. Don’t give them any ideas.

    2. Well, you don’t want to get the roadway transportation system into a death spiral, do you? Use less fuel, pay less tax, get less roadway maintenance, raise tax to replace revenue, use less fuel, pay less tax … this is the path to being a 3rd world nation, including the vigorous black-market in fuel (not to mention fuel thefts) that would also be a result. I do think that toll-roads would be best. Find a way for a driver to pay automatically and anonymously, and give those who must pay in hard cash the occasional lane or tollbooth for their situation, and then let the roads pay for themselves. There will be problems, as always with human-designed systems functioning in the real world. But I think I would prefer the set of problems associated with toll-roads, over the sets of problems that arise from other road-infrastructure funding schemes.

    3. “This is what I don’t understand”

      What is it about getting a gps tracking device on your car that you don’t understand? It’s pretty obvious what this is about

  30. Same government contractors that created Obama care site gonna write this program? When you monthly road use tax bill is $2, 000, 000 dollars there not going to listen to your objections, there just going to take your house, your savings, abd your first born.

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