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How will Washington pay for the transportation fix-up?

NOTE TO READERS: Today I begin a six-month leave of absence to write a book. I’ll miss Cityscape and MinnPost, and I’ll miss you. See you in November! — Steve Berg

DULUTH — At a session with grad students and faculty here on Saturday, Rep. Jim Oberstar tried to sort out some of the confusion over how Americans will be asked to pay for the massive repairs and expansion needed in the nation’s deteriorating transportation system. But in the end, he sowed some confusion of his own by reversing himself on a controversial plan to begin charging drivers by the mile.

A mileage-based tax will not be included in his writing of the new six-year transportation bill now before his House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Oberstar said. Instead, his committee will “promote mass transit and a wider range of choices than people now have” as a way to reduce petroleum demand and tailpipe emissions. Last year’s high gas prices and this year’s bad economy are already reducing the miles Americans are driving, he told an assembly at the University of Minnesota’s Duluth campus.

Earlier last week, Oberstar was singing a different tune. Asked about funding options, he told the New York Times that he would consider both a temporary gas-tax increase and the development of a mileage charge. The committee has no choice but to seek the new mileage charge because a trend toward efficient cars and less driving has critically depleted federal gas tax revenues, he said.

“We will have multiple sources as we go into the authorization period. Vehicle-miles- traveled will be one,” Oberstar said. He told the Times that a mileage tax would more accurately measure the effect a driver has on congestion as well as on the wear and tear of road and bridge surfaces.

Possibly a pilot project in the bill
So, why the change? No change really, said John Schadl, Oberstar’s communications director. Yes, Oberstar is interested in exploring the feasibility of a mileage-based tax. Yes, there may be pilot projects included in the bill. But the technology isn’t yet mature enough to put a mileage tax in place. So, no, it’s unlikely that a mileage-based tax will be a part of the six-year bill.

“They need to look at the full scope of the bill before they look at how to fund it,” Schadl said. The committee will consider a variety of funding sources when the time comes, he said.

Oberstar said on Saturday that he’s planning a June rollout for the bill. Maybe by then the Obama administration will get its story straight. There has been more than a little confusion at the White House about how to pay for fixing and adding roads, bridges and transit systems.

As a candidate, President Obama promised an aggressive approach. Then, last month, a stern report from the National Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission described the problem’s scope. Governments at all levels are spending only a third of what’s needed, the commission said after two years of study. Because the shortfall has reached a massive $200 billion a year, “our safety, economic competitiveness and quality of life are at risk,” it said

Current federal gax tax won’t do the job
The federal gas tax — 18.4 cents a gallon — simply isn’t delivering enough revenue to do the job, the report continued. As a result, the blue-ribbon panel’s key recommendation: move toward charging drivers for each mile driven, commonly called a VMT (vehicle miles traveled) tax. The tax would be calculated and enforced by a satellite-based monitoring system. Pilot programs are now underway in Oregon and several other states.

As the report surfaced, Obama’s transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, signaled his agreement. “We should look at the vehicular miles program where people are actually clocked on the number of miles that they have traveled,” he said.

But LaHood was immediately scolded by Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs. “I can weigh in on it and say that it is not and will not be the policy of the Obama administration.” When a reporter protested that LaHood had said the VMT tax should be considered, Gibbs said sharply, “Well, call him back.”

‘Slapped down by know-nothings’
That’s where Oberstar entered the debate by standing up for LaHood and the mileage tax idea. He told Congressional Quarterly that LaHood “had the temerity to think … and what did he get? Slapped down. He’s a good man. A decent man. Don’t let him get slapped down by know-nothings.” Oberstar suggested that Gibbs say out of transportation policy. “I’ve got news for you,” he said. “Transportation policy isn’t going to be written in the press room of the White House.”

That brings us to Saturday’s session at the University of Minnesota’s Duluth campus. As Oberstar finished his remarks, I asked him if he would, indeed, include a mileage tax in his new six-year bill, as he had apparently signaled with his defense of LaHood.

He said he would not. “No, not VMT,” he said, launching into a discussion of promoting more options for travel and creating a level playing field for mass transit and auto projects, a fix often referred to as “modality neutrality.”

I asked, then, how the Obama administration expects to pay for infrastructure fixes, considering the president’s objection to both the new mileage tax idea and to raising the current gas tax. (LaHood had said earlier this month that he would not pursue a gas tax increase. “With the economy the way it is right now, trying to propose a 10-cent-a-gallon increase in the gasoline tax is not going to fly anywhere in America, including Washington, D.C.,” he had said.)

Oberstar answered by retelling the anecdote about how Obama’s press secretary should stay out of transportation policy and about how his committee will write the new provisions.

My view? Gax-tax increase is unavoidable
So where does that leave us? My own view is that a federal gas tax increase is unavoidable, and that all kinds of pricing experiments, including mileage and weight-based taxes ought to be tried. We cannot fix our decrepit roadways or expand non-auto transportation options, and we cannot honestly confront climate change or reduce our dependence on foreign petroleum unless Americans are charged a fairer and truer price for driving.

I’m not saying there aren’t huge benefits to the car. I love to drive. I love my car and the freedom it provides. But the costs of driving far exceed the $1.80 per gallon we’re now paying at the pump. Some suggest that the hydrogen car is just around the corner and will solve everything. But hydrogen fuel cell and fusion technologies are perpetually 20 years down the road. Besides, even if we suddenly had clean-burning cars, the problems of congestion and wear and tear on roadways and bridges would not go away.

Two Washington Post editorials and an adjoining discussion tell more about the mileage tax option. And a National Journal blog offers some expert opinions.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 03/17/2009 - 10:02 am.

    Surprise Surprise…More taxes for the Democratic Mantra – Education (union), Healthcare (national), and the environment (cars are evil).

  2. Submitted by Matthew Kilanowski on 03/17/2009 - 11:58 am.

    The technology isn’t mature enough for a pilot program? Why do we need any sort of new technology to collect a mileage tax?

    We’re missing the obvious here: Just check the mileage annually, possibly when renewing tabs or (like in some states) checking on emissions, and pay up then (or set up a payment plan, depending on how much tax is going to be collected). If you sell your car, pay what you owe on the mileage tax up to that point and the new owner starts fresh. The only technology needed is a database, and people don’t need to have any GPS-based mileage tracker installed in their vehicles.

    Sounds simple enough to me.

  3. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 03/17/2009 - 12:53 pm.

    Mr. Gotzman responds with typical right-wing ridicule of whatever does not fit the no-tax ideology favored by the Right since Reagan.

    Education in Minnesota desperately needs to return to a level of funding that ensures an equal and excellent education for each person. Blaming teachers does not cut it. (And echoing the anti-union sentiment of the billions-per-year anti-union “consulting” industry that corporations use to kill unions doesn’t either.)

    No one says cars are “evil” either. What is needed is not the abolition of cars, but greater availability of public transit as an alternative in order to save precious fuel AND help clean up the air.

  4. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 03/17/2009 - 11:14 pm.

    Hopefully Chairman Oberstar will have a way to pay for his spending when the big plan comes out, although I’m betting that we just push out paying until a (much) later date. Good luck with the book Mr. Berg.

  5. Submitted by Tim Hayes on 03/17/2009 - 11:23 pm.

    Can’t wait to read the new book!

  6. Submitted by Glenn Mesaros on 03/18/2009 - 01:50 pm.

    Turkey has a better transportation system than America.

    “Dear Passengers, please take your seats. The train is about to take off.” This was the announcement made by Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan on the morning of March 14, as Turkey’s totally electrified, new High Speed Train departed Ankara station to begin commercial operation for the first time. Later during its maiden trip, Erdogan announced that the train had reached its top speed of 252 km (157 miles) per hour, to applause by the passengers.

    Turkey’s High Speed Train (HST) is part of an ambitious government program to modernize Turkey’s national transport system, and, as well, create an indispensable link to the worldwide Land-bridge, including the first-ever tunnel that would connect Asia with Europe, going under the Bosporus Straits.

    For now, the HST will run from Turkey’s capital, Ankara, to the city of Eskisehir (245 km distant); however, by the end of this year, with the completion of the Eskisehir-to-Istanbul portion of the rail line, it would be possible to travel by HST from Anakara to Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city (12.6 million people), a distance of 533 km (331 miles). The revolutionary effect of electrification will be manifest: whereas previously this trip took 6 to 7 hours, it will now take 3 hours and 10 minutes.

    However, on Feb. 23 of this year, engineers announced that after five years of simultaneous boring from each direction, they had completed the boring of a submersed tunnel, 13.6 km (8.4 miles) in length, under the Bosporus Straits, linking Asia with Europe. The tunnel will have to be lined, and engineers are creating train stations, including one that will be carved out of rock. The finished link, called the Marmary link, will be completed by 2012. The first proposal for a rail tunnel under the Bosporus was made in 1860. This would replace the use of a ferry which takes tens of thousands of people across the Bosporus every day.

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