Reaction to fuel tax study volatile


It's safe to say that if the government installed a tracking device in Nevadans' vehicles, a good number of drivers would be tempted to blow it to smithereens with a shotgun.

That is how a handful of residents have reacted to the Nevada Department of Transportation's proposed Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) program.

The initial proposal had the ingredients of every government skeptic's greatest nightmare: government intrusion, government spending, even government waste.

States across the country are studying the program as a replacement for gasoline taxes which, because of the proliferation of electric and hybrid vehicles, are not generating enough money to maintain roads or build needed infrastructure.

The idea is to charge motorists for miles traveled and do away with fuel taxes.

In the early stages of Nevada's study, transportation officials proposed installing global positioning systems in vehicles to track the miles traveled, the roads used and the time of day of the commute.

Fees were to be higher if a motorist drove along congested Interstate 15 rather than a less-traveled rural highway. They would also increase if motorists drove during peak hours. The intent here was to ease traffic problems by discouraging motorists from making unnecessary trips during rush hour.

Although 17 states are assessing the VMT program, Nevada is the only one that has opened up discussions to the public. Early on, that didn't go so well.

"People just went ballistic. It was Big Brother tracking them," said Eric Herzik, a University of Nevada, Reno political science professor who became a professional listener of public outcry for the state traffic division.

Nevadans were so enraged, they urged the government to simply raise the gasoline tax. Yes, Republicans and Democrats alike asked that taxes be increased. In transportation experts' minds, that is not the solution because of the advent of electric and hybrid vehicles.

Here's a brief snapshot of how the fuel tax works, or apparently doesn't work. Motorists pay a flat tax of 52 cents per gallon and that number doesn't change whether gasoline is $4 a gallon or $2 a gallon. Fuel taxes haven't been raised since 1993, and during that time the money has lost about half of its purchasing power.

On top of that, transit officials anticipate that by 2016, most vehicles on the road will be hybrids or electric and they predict that fuel tax revenue will plummet by another 30 percent.

Basically, states are desperate for a different type of revenue source and the vehicle miles traveled probably is the most viable.

Because Herzik is handling the public outreach portion of the transportation department's study, he absorbed the brunt of the anger when the program was first floated two years ago. The message was quite clear.

"Personal privacy is a very high concern," he said.

Sure, our movement can easily be tracked through our cellphones, but that is different.

"I choose to do that," Herzik said, relating critics' take on the difference between cellphones and GPS. "This is something the government is making me do."

Herzik passed along the feedback to researchers, who decided instead on a simple odometer reader to log miles for fee purposes. That, Herzik said, has allayed fears of most, but about a quarter of those surveyed are still adamantly opposed to the concept.

For example, Las Vegan Chris Garey, who up at a recent work shop about the program, said:

"I think we have a good system going for us now. People who have fuel-efficient vehicles, they should not be punished. They shouldn't change the law because of the fact they are doing something for us environmentally."

The program will not be introduced for another decade, at least. Lawmakers have plenty to discuss about how the program would work. The challenge is to determine a revenue-generating method in which everybody who travels the roads helps pay for the maintenance of them.

Policy issues include deciding on the fee charged per mile and other considerations like whether motorcycles, which don't cause a lot of wear and tear on our roads, will be charged the same as an asphalt-eating Hummer.

Also, how often would motorists have to pay up? Registration fees and related taxes are on the rise; it's hard to imagine coughing up another $400 during registration for the miles driven over the year. It could be a bill sent out monthly or quarterly.

The other idea, and one that Nevada officials are heavily leaning toward, is paying each time we gas up. That too has flaws. How many times have you pulled up to the pump with just enough money for fuel to reach your destination? How would they handle electric vehicles that don't visit the gas stations? Who would pay to retrofit the pumps?

What about all-terrain vehicles or boats? Owners would be allowed to skirt the fee if they are using a gas can, but on the other hand they aren't causing any deterioration to the road.

Wouldn't all states have to be on board?

"None of these issues are insurmountable," Herzik said. "But that is why it is going to be a 10-year study."

If you have a question, tip or tirade, call Adrienne Packer at 702-387-2904, or send an email to roadwarrior@ reviewjournal.com. Include your phone number.

 

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