Thursday, May 15, 2014

More Taxes for Michigan Roads?

One of the reasons for encouraging people to use less gasoline and more green technology was not only to help reduce pollution but also to reduce wear and tear on the roads. Ultimately for pollution's sake it might be better for us all to be driving hybrids or electric vehicles. Or for the roads' sake more of us should be bicycling or taking mass transit. But in the mean time the auto companies should be compelled to increase CAFE standards while consumers should be encouraged to car pool, bicycle, walk to work, use mass transit and do other things which will result in less use of gasoline. One person who's almost comically gung-ho about this is NYT Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Thomas Friedman, who has a 70% chance of working his support for a carbon tax into any column he writes, no matter the subject matter. Mid-East Peace? Carbon tax will solve it. Islamic Terrorism? Carbon tax will hit the spot. Russia making ominous noises? A carbon tax will settle their hash. China polluting the entire planet? Obviously we need a carbon tax. Donald Sterling situation? A carbon tax would have prevented it. And so on. Vehicles are more fuel efficient than they used to be. Gasoline costs more than it used to. And people don't buy as many cars or drive as much as they used to. So you would think that the state would be happy about this right? We're cutting back on emissions and getting more out of less: the very definition of efficiency. That's good, right?

Well not so fast partner.

You see all that fuel efficiency and higher CAFE standards and bicycling to work may be good for the environment and for politicians who have made it their business to be seen as standing up against older methods of energy generation but they're not good for state revenue. When people buy less gasoline they also pay less gasoline tax. Less money coming into the state coffers means the state either has to (a) be wiser and smarter with less or (b) find a way to shake citizens down to make up the difference. If you know anything about Michigan politicians (or politicians anywhere) you can hazard an informed guess about which choice they would likely prefer. 

LANSING — Michigan could solve its road funding problems by being one of the first states in the nation to move to a system where motorists pay a fee based on the number of miles they drive, according to a University of Michigan report to be released today. The report, prepared for the Michigan Environmental Council by Sustainable Mobility & Accessibility Research & Transformation (SMART) at U-M, says fuel consumption is declining as traditional vehicles become more efficient and electric vehicles more common. 

Together, those trends are making road funding models based on fuel taxes obsolete, the report says. Instead of continuing to raise fuel taxes to pay for transportation infrastructure a mileage fee could more fairly allocate costs based on the number of miles driven, the time of day, the route taken, and the weight of the vehicle,” the report says. Elizabeth Treutel, a master of urban planning candidate at U-M and one of the authors of the report, said moving to such a system is probably five to 10 years away, but the report is partly intended to start a conversation.

Let me be perfectly clear, as our President likes to say. Climate change is real. I support less pollution, better roads, and within reason, certain higher CAFE standards. Lord knows I've spent more than my share of money because of issues caused by potholes. But as you might have noticed I also have this strange preoccupation with privacy. I just don't think it's any of the state's business how much I drive each year. I don't think there is any non-intrusive method for them to obtain that information. And if you're going to make people pay for the number of miles they drive then frankly I would just as soon the state (speaking federal and Michigan here) get out of the business of twisting arms to get companies to produce little hybrid/electric clown cars that at least in Michigan are not super popular. I have a 45 minute one way commute on a good day. I don't think it's "fair" to charge me more because I was not fortunate enough to find a job closer to home. And by "fair" I also mean in my interest. There are people who outearn me by factors of five, ten or more who may have a 10 minute commute. Is it really right that they would pay less tax than I do?

I also don't like the baked in presumption that that the state is guaranteed some fixed amount of revenue from citizens. They wanted us to use less gasoline; we're using less gasoline. Now that's no good because their tax revenue is declining? That is not my problem. If I were running things I would suggest cutting the truck weight limits in half and giving businesses more incentive to transport items by train. There are far too many semi-trailers or other large trucks on Michigan roads. That's where the road damage starts if you ask me. I also think the standards for roads are far too low. Other states in the upper Midwest don't seem to have the kinds of roads with which Michigan is cursed so I don't think the problem is weather related. So right now I'd want to know more about who's fixing the roads and why are they doing such a poor job before I'd support giving them more money.

But what's your call?

Is a tax based on mileage rather than gasoline usage fair?

If you were the state what would you do when faced with declining gas tax revenue?

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