Potholes aplenty in tax plan


POSTED: Sunday, April 19, 2009

Hawaii legislators are on the verge of following several other states in testing a formula to pay for highway maintenance by taxing drivers on how many miles they drive rather than through gasoline tax revenue. The notion of a “;user pays”; approach makes sense but the ancillary effects could collide with public policy, so pilot programs are needed.

The House has approved creating a pilot project supported by state Transportation Director Brennan Morioka as a method of keeping up with technology.

“;We need to change the way we look at infrastructure and how we pay for it,”; he said.

The bill is being considered by the Senate.

Proponents envision the phasing out of gas taxes — 17 cents a gallon by the state and 18 cents federally — in two to three years. As Americans have economized by changing their driving habits, the federal tax has fallen short of meeting interstate system maintenance needs.

A congressional blue-ribbon commission recommended the new direction in February after two years of study. Such a method, called Vehicle Miles Traveled, “;more accurately aligns the costs and benefits of the surface transportation system to those who are using it,”; the commission concluded.

Prior to the commission's report, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said gas taxes can no longer be relied upon to meet transportation system needs.

“;We should look at the vehicular miles program where people are actually clocked on the number of miles that they traveled,”; he said.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was quick to denounce the system of taxing people on how many miles they drive.

“;It is not and will not be the policy of the Obama administration,”; he told reporters.

One of the problems is that it would penalize people who make the longest commute to work. State Rep. Kymberly Pine asks that the state pause “;before we make the people of Hawaii suffer more.”;

Another concern is how the state would determine how many miles a vehicle has been driven. Oregon has been keeping track by installing GPS receivers in vehicles as part of a pilot project, but that has created concern about an Orwellian infringement of civil liberties. Another way would be to simply measure odometer readings periodically to determine miles traveled, inviting mechanical tomfoolery.

A significant undesired effect could be to discourage people from buying hybrid or electric cars, but the untaxed price of gasoline should be enough to steer people toward efficiency.