Mileage Tax Idea Rife With Potholes

Times Staff Writer

Tax motorists based on the number of miles they drive?

The concept is gaining currency among the think-outside-the-box crowd as a way to bolster sagging transportation coffers while eliminating the politically unpopular tax on gasoline. But it may be an idea that only a policy wonk could love.

"It's absolutely horrible," said Nancy Mooslin, an artist who divides her time -- and drives -- between downtown Los Angeles and Newport Beach.

"It's the craziest idea I've ever heard," said Judy Heiser, who manages a gas station in North Hollywood.

Last week, talk show tongues wagged and e-mail lists buzzed with the news that Joan Borucki, appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to head the Department of Motor Vehicles, wants the state to consider tracking how far motorists drive, and tax them accordingly.

She's not the only advocate. Among transportation planners, similar proposals abound: Oregon is developing a pilot program to put satellite tracking devices in cars to monitor mileage and tax motorists on it; Germany is preparing to do the same with trucks that use its autobahn routes.

At the behest of Congress, the U.S. Transportation Research Board recently set up a committee to look at ways to raise money for roads without a gasoline tax. Committee members met last week to discuss a per-mile road user fee for the United States.

"It's not an idea to be taken lightly," said Martin Wachs, director of the Institute for Transportation Studies at UC Berkeley. "It's revolutionary."

He said that 88 mileage-tax experiments were being conducted worldwide.

Schwarzenegger administration officials are quick to point out that there is no active proposal to switch to such a system. Even if the idea got beyond the talking stage, it would face tremendous hurdles in the Legislature, where lawmakers are both hesitant to impose new taxes and keenly aware of privacy issues.

In response to a question at a recent news conference, Schwarzenegger said he didn't know enough about the mileage fee to comment.

Borucki also would not comment for this article. But earlier this year, as chairwoman of the transportation section for the California Performance Review, the state governmental reform study, she urged the state to develop a pilot program for taxing motorists based on the number of miles they drive. She also discussed the idea at a hearing in August.

On its face, the tax seems simple: If the government tracks where people go, it can charge them for their use of the roads, and spend the money to build and repair streets and highways. Some supporters even envision a time when global positioning systems would be used to manage traffic, signaling to a state databank when a motorist was driving at rush hour and charging that person more than drivers who travel during off-peak hours.

It would work by linking up the tracking device with the car's odometer. When a driver went to fill up the tank, the fees would be added to the price of gas.

Supporters, whose ranks include academics, urban planners and many transportation leaders, say that the tax on gasoline has not kept up with inflation. The tax has been stuck at 18 cents per gallon in California since 1994, and the additional federal tax is also about 18 cents. And as cars and trucks become more fuel efficient, it could get more difficult to collect enough funds to keep up with road construction costs.

The mileage tax would be more of a direct-user fee, said Elizabeth Deakin, professor and director of the University of California Transportation Center, a statewide program. People who drive more would be taxed more, she said.

But if a sampling of motorists interviewed for this article are any indication, the idea gives the average person the creeps.

"It's a Big Brother thing," said Scott McNatt, 46. "Everybody is going to have a monitor in their car."

At the Van Nuys office of the Automobile Club of Southern California, where McNatt sat among about a dozen people waiting to renew vehicle registrations or purchase car insurance, drivers also worried about the logistics of a new system.

Tulio Ortiz Sr., 64, predicted that a new system would be difficult to set up and monitor.

"It would be a nightmare just to keep track of the user fee," he said. Car owners would dismantle the equipment or register their cars out of state, he said.

Georgine Berrian, a nurse who commutes 22 miles each way from her home in Sylmar to her job at Kaiser Permanente's hospital on Sunset Boulevard, said she was concerned that such a system would penalize people who live far from their jobs.

"Some people have to move farther out to be able to afford property," Berrian said. "We have girls who commute from Rancho Cucamonga."

Others feared that a mileage tax would eliminate incentives for motorists to buy fuel-efficient cars by charging the driver of a hybrid car the same rate as the owner of a Hummer.

Wachs of Berkeley said the system could be adjusted to reward drivers of fuel-efficient cars simply by charging them less per mile.

But the biggest concerns involved privacy.

"People are naturally wary of these kinds of schemes," said Michael Curry, a UCLA geography professor who has studied the privacy implications of tracking devices. "You have to wonder how these data could be used for other purposes."

Curry ticked off a list of potential abuses: in lawsuits and criminal cases, in custody disputes, in divorce proceedings and even in tracking political dissidents.

Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of the Rhode Island-based Privacy Journal, said it's not uncommon for personal information gathered for one purpose to be used for another. Already, information from electronic toll tags are used by police in some states to track drivers who are suspected in criminal cases, he said.

Supporters say that the system could be designed to protect privacy while addressing other issues. The voluntary Oregon pilot program, expected to start in late 2005, would not track the time of day or specific roads traveled, but would note when a driver left the state. The motorist would not be taxed for miles outside of Oregon.

The car would transmit data via limited short-range radio and the fee would be collected at the gas pump, said James Whitty, who is spearheading the program for the Oregon Department of Transportation.

"When people take the time to understand the system, they realize there really aren't privacy concerns," Whitty said. "It isn't much different from the electronic toll systems that are used in many places around the country."

The gasoline tax, in place for more than 80 years in California, has served as a rough barometer of how much any given motorist uses the roads, said Brian Taylor, director of the UCLA Institute for Transportation Studies.

"The gas tax has a lot of advantages," he said. "It's extremely cheap to collect from wholesale distributors. Also, it encourages people to purchase and use more fuel-efficient vehicles."

But the tax has become politicized, and legislators have been unwilling to increase the levy, he said.

Between inflation and the prevalence of fuel-efficient cars, income from the gas tax buys a third of the road improvements that it would have purchased in the 1960s, Taylor said.

As a result, policymakers continue to look at replacing the gas tax with a mileage tax, while trying to work out its numerous kinks, he said.

Winning approval for such a proposal may be decades off in the United States, several experts said.

"There's a long, long way from an academic theory to public acceptance," said Dan Beal, policy analyst for the Auto Club, which has not taken a position on the mileage tax. "There are a lot of obstacles to overcome."

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Times researcher Lynn Marshall in Seattle contributed to this report.

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