Vehicle miles tax needs to be studied before implemented, GAO says

This week, the Government Accountability Office recommended creating a pilot program to research mileage fees targeted at creating new revenue for the Highway Trust Fund, echoing recently introduced House legislation that would establish such a program.

The GAO, considered the investigative arm of Congress, issued the Jan. 8 report upon request by a House appropriations subcommittee.

As it stands now, federal fuel taxes primarily finance the Highway Trust Fund, but increasingly fuel efficient vehicles have eroded that revenue. State and federal governments have investigated alternatives to mitigate this shortfall, including charging drivers fees based on vehicle miles traveled.

Last month, Democrat Rep. Earl Blumenauer sponsored legislation that would create a pilot program in every state, similar to the program established in his home state of Oregon. Blumenauer’s bill was referred to committee Dec. 17 with no co-sponsors.

Trucking organizations, including the American Trucking Associations, have criticized VMT fees as costly for compliance, administration and enforcement. Industry leaders instead have supported adjusting the fuel tax rate to inflation, which has not occurred since 1993.

The GAO report noted the general public was resistant to using Global Positioning Systems to gather mileage data. Forty-five of the 51 transportation departments for every state and the District of Columbia reported privacy concerns would present a great challenge to developing a mileage fee program in their state.

Of the state conducted VMT studies, Oregon and Nevada plan to not use of GPS-based systems in future pilot studies because of public perception of privacy risks, it added.

Reliable start-up and administrative cost estimates to implement a passenger vehicle mileage fee system are not available, the researchers stated. Still, implementing a system to collect fees from 230 million passenger vehicles “is likely to greatly exceed the costs of collecting fuel taxes,” the GAO wrote.

If Congress further explores mileage fees, it should consider a pilot program to test viability of these fees for commercial trucks and electric vehicles, the researchers recommended. Also, the Federal Highway Administration should update estimates of road damages imposed by vehicle types compared with the tax revenues generated by each vehicle category.

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