Officials in Oregon face an uphill battle if they are to replace the long-established ‘gas tax’ with a GPS-based tax system linked to mileage travelled. Transport journalist Max Glaskin advises how politicians might persuade drivers to accept the switch.
George Bush Snr knew that citizens fear taxation more than war. “No new taxes” he pledged during his election campaign – and then won the race to the White House.
Among all the citizens of the world, motorists are the most frightened of tax. Even the most gallant knight of the road bristles like a psychotic porcupine when changes to fuel duty are proposed.
Drivers like what they know, so they greet every innovation about raising revenue from motoring as a threat to their very existence and an insult to the memory of their ancestors.
Of course, it’s not surprising that they are so defensive because the ribbons of blacktop they require, the polluted air they create and the horrific tally of road deaths are indefensible in civilised societies.
So they focus on fuel duty, simultaneously demonising it as a cruel and unusual punishment, while having a hissy fit whenever anybody comes up with a better way to raise the revenue that will partly pay for the infrastructure and services their vehicles need. Their paranoia knows no bounds.
That’s why Theodore R. Kulongoski, the Democratic Governor of Oregon, is being particularly cautious in his proposed budget for 2009-11 (see: Oregon seeks GPS-based transport tax option). He is preparing the way to replace gasoline tax with a mileage charge.
He knows it will take some time to achieve because a blinkered, frightened community can’t accept new ideas easily. First, the group must be helped to see the whole picture. Then it must understand that change can be for the best. Finally, it has to be allowed to believe that it came up with the idea itself ages ago and that it has been blocked by evil forces that live inside the air conditioning.
Pay for what you use
Kulongoski’s plans will eventually make the tax that drivers pay commensurate with the infrastructure they require. Instead of gasoline tax, drivers will pay a mileage charge. The more tarmac you eat the higher your bill. Many will end up paying less, some will pay more.
The proposal follows successful trials in Portland, Oregon, in 2006. Cars were fitted with a hybrid odometer and GPS to record their mileage and GPS to log when the vehicle crossed boundaries into different charging zones. Routes were not stored so privacy issues are minimised.
When the driver refuels at a gas station, an RFID chip transmits the amount of tax due and it is added to the bill – which no longer has gas tax included.
It is simple, anonymous, equitable and even the UK’s transport secretary at the time, Alistair Darling, could understand it. In fact, he reportedly liked it so much he wanted to introduce it on a voluntary basis in Britain.
Politically expedient policy making
Then, of course, he was promoted to become Chancellor of the Exchequer and he has a lot on his plate at the moment, including recession, possible deflation, a weak currency and plummeting tax revenues. Besides, he knows his political party recently lost the Mayoral election in London mainly on the motorists’ vote, so he won’t be antagonising them if he can avoid it.
Oregon now has the chance to lead the world with its better way to raise revenue from drivers. Good ideas never die – but they can take one heck of a long time to become accepted as worthwhile.
Incidentally, President George Bush Snr raised taxes.
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