Now the gasoline tax isn’t enough

The Nevada Department of Transportation will hold a public information meeting today from 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at the East Las Vegas Community Center as part of its ongoing study of the feasibility and methodology of a proposed “vehicle miles traveled” tax. Residents are invited to “attend the meeting at your convenience anytime during the meeting hours.”

The state agency insists it’s only “studying” the logistics and feasibility of imposing such a tax. The problem, NDOT officials assert, is that current funding for road construction and maintenance comes from fuel taxes collected at the pump. But, “Due to inflation, these fuel taxes cover approximately half of the road construction, maintenance and operations costs per gallon that they funded when last raised in 1992.”

Meantime, largely due to heavy-handed federal mandates, “Hybrid/electric vehicle use is increasing,” the department contends. “In 2016, an estimated 20 percent of new vehicles will be alternative fuel vehicles. While an important positive for our environment, these alternative vehicles pay limited fuel tax to support roadway construction and maintenance and will cause an approximate 15 percent loss in road funding in coming years. Vehicle fuel efficiency will increase to an average 37 miles a gallon by 2016, leading to less road funding collected from fuel taxes. …”

In fact, the calculus that asserts hybrid and all-electric vehicles are an environmental boon is frequently incomplete, ignoring or de-emphasizing environmental concerns over the manufacture and disposal of the electric batteries, the relative inefficiency of power recovery from such batteries, and the fact that said stored electricity doesn’t just “come out of the wall,” but is in fact generated at remote power plants, often coal-fired or nuclear.

Most American consumers have meantime showed resistance to giving up the range, power and carrying capacity of their larger diesel or gasoline vehicles; no one yet knows how lighter, “green” cars will fare once the federal carrots and sticks expire.

Meantime, while taxes are rarely preferable to user fees (“tolls”), the indirect excises on gasoline and tires are among the best targeted and least objectionable of federal levies, going primarily to road construction and maintenance.

NDOT appears to have responded to a considerable public outcry by dropping its plans to impose any future “miles traveled” tax through satellite tracking boxes mounted in the vehicles themselves, with all the privacy concerns that would raise. The plan now being studied seems to hinge on periodic odometer readings.

The problems should be obvious. “Miles traveled” is hardly an ideal way to measure the burden a vehicle put on the streets and roads, unless some formula is applied to account for vehicle weight. And drivers may be rightfully suspicious of the notion that a miles tax will ever replace the current gasoline tax. Instead politicians are far more likely to greedily eye a potential new revenue sources, simply adding it to the existing pump tax.

Perhaps those buying all-electric vehicles should figure on some kind of mileage tax on their horizon, easily justified as a way to “make them pay their fair share.” But a vehicle miles traveled tax for every vehicle on the road? That’s a long way away, and could probably only be achieved on a national basis.

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