If Texas Ditches the Gas Tax, It Might Have to Start Tracking Your Car

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Texas is in a weird place when it comes to transportation. It is a state utterly dependent on the automobile, yet policy makers have proven unable — or, more precisely, unwilling — to properly fund the roads and infrastructure that make car travel feasible. The gas tax has been a flat 20 cents per gallon since 1991 even though increased fuel-efficiency and godless millennials have steadily eroded its purchasing power. And even if you assume, as you probably should, that TxDOT's claimed $5 billion annual budget shortfall is grossly inflated, the better to jockey for a larger share of Texas' budget, it's hard to argue that there isn't a yawning gap between what Texas spends on roads and what it needs to spend.

One alternative that's been tossed around for the past several years, among transportation wonks if not the driving public, is the idea of a "road usage charge" (RUC) to supplement or replace the state's fuel tax. Instead of the state's collecting less and less over time as drivers make the inevitable switch to hybrids and, ultimately, electric-powered rainbow buggies, drivers would be taxed on how many miles they drive. Texas lawmakers would presumably set up the system in such a way to be revenue neutral so as to avoid accusations of a tax hike, meaning that it would do little to address any near-term funding shortfall. It would, however, save future generations of Texas politicians from having to decide not to raise the gas tax.

Transportation-minded lawmakers in Austin — Irving Republican Linda Harper-Brown before she was Tea Partied, Democrat Ryan Guillen since — have introduced legislation to pilot test such programs, but they've never gained any traction. Nor are they likely to in the foreseeable future. Texans simply don't like the idea.

Someday policy makers will probably have to address declining fuel tax revenues head on. When they do, they'll at least have the experience of Oregon to draw from. The state, after a pair of earlier pilot programs, will implement the country's first RUC program in July. While the goal seems to be to replace the state's fuel tax someday, for the time being it is voluntary program with 5,000 drivers who will pay a 1.5 cent-per-mile fee instead of a gas tax. It's being sold both as a way of addressing the long-term issues associated with a fuel tax and a way to ensure fairness among drivers, who will be chipping in for road upkeep in proportion to how heavily they use those roads rather than in proportion to the fuel efficiency of their car.

Seems straightforward enough, but Trey Baker, a researcher with the Texas Transportation Institute who last month co-authored a paper examining potential Texas takeaways from RUC policies in other states, says implementing such a system is a challenge both in terms of administration and selling it to the public.

Today, Texas levies fuel taxes directly from just a couple hundred fuel refineries. For everyone else — distributors, gas stations, drivers — the tax is already built into the price of fuel. Taxing miles driven, by contrast, would require the state to collect driving data from and directly tax 23 million registered vehicles in Texas. There are various ways this can be done — in Oregon, it's mostly being farmed out to private vendors — but all of them are far more complicated than the current system.

Another potential hurdle: People tend to be freaked out by the notion that the government could be tracking where they drive. That, Baker says, was the top concern raised during focus groups he and colleagues conducted in Texas several years ago, followed by the aforementioned administrative challenges and fears that the system will be much easier to cheat. Odometers can be too easily manipulated, so calculating mileage entails equipping vehicles with some sort of mileage-tracking device. Oregon has addressed privacy concerns by ensuring drivers have an option of choosing a mileage-tracking system that doesn't use GPS and thus doesn't track exact locations. Of course, accepting that requires drivers to trust the government.

While lawmakers haven't seriously discussed an RUC, state transportation bureaucrats have. Texas is part of the Western Road User Charge Consortium, a coalition of state transportation departments aimed at exploring the subject and it's implementation. It's sort of like the UN except comprised entirely of states west of the Mississippi and focused exclusively on sharing information about road-usage taxes. Like the UN, it will presumably bypass established democratic institutions to craft and implement radical policies by fiat. So, you've been warned.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.

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