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Texas is studying a tax on the number of miles you drive

January 13, 2010

News to me:  Texas will study a tax on miles driven:

If you don’t like gasoline taxes, here’s an alternative: a tax on the number of miles you drive in a year.

The Texas Transportation Commission has directed a fresh study of the idea, and it is not alone.  There are pilot projects in other states and nationally to gauge how such a tax would work.

Texas transportation officials say the study is meant to help give lawmakers information on options ahead of their next regular session in 2011, when they confront a funding squeeze that is expected to drain the highway fund of money for new construction contracts by 2012.  “We need to think differently about how we fund transportation,” Texas Transportation Commission Chairwoman Deirdre Delisi said at a Texas Taxpayers and Research Association forum in November.

Delisi said the vehicle-miles-traveled tax idea is controversial, but should be discussed because revenue from the state’s main source of transportation funding, the motor fuels tax, is declining.  The gasoline tax has not been raised since 1991.

The commission asked the Texas Transportation Institute, which is part of the Texas A&M University System, to take the lead on the study.  Commissioner Fred Underwood has emphasized that the commission’s goal is to give lawmakers alternatives.

There are good arguments that a gasoline tax is a more efficient tax on externalities.  Heavier vehicles do more damage to roads; heavier vehicles use more gasoline.  Emissions vary with the amount of gasoline used (ignoring vehicle technology).  A miles-traveled tax perhaps better reflects a driver’s accident risk to others, but larger vehicles impose a higher risk on other drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians than smaller vehicles.  (Neither accounts for congestion externalities.)

But two drivers who “consume” the same number of miles enjoy equal benefits.  It’s fair in that sense to require them to pay the same amount.   A gas tax and miles-traveled tax thus serve different purposes:  a gas tax is a tax on externalities; a miles-traveled tax is a tax on consumer surplus.

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