Dem proposes taxing drivers by the mile

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) on Tuesday reintroduced legislation that would require the government to study the most practical ways of taxing drivers based on how far they drive, in order to help fund federal highway programs.

Blumenauer's bill, H.R. 3638, would set up a Road Usage Fee Pilot Program, which he said would study mileage-based fee systems. He cast his bill as a long-term solution for funding highway programs, and proposed it along with a shorter-term plan to nearly double the gas tax, from 18.4 cents to 33.4 cents per gallon.

"As we extend the gas tax, we must also think about how to replace it with something more sustainable," Blumenauer said Tuesday. "The best candidate would be the vehicle mile traveled fee being explored by pilot projects in Oregon and implemented there on a voluntary basis next year."

He said the bill would help answer questions about "how best to implement a vehicle miles traveled [VMT] system," and said it "looks to the future and helps provide a more stable funding base for the next one hundred years."

A text of Blumenauer's new bill was not available as of Wednesday morning. But the concept is similar to an idea he proposed in a bill last year, which called on the Treasury Department to study the viability of a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax.

Democrats have pondered VMT systems for the last several years as a way of finding new highway revenue. Blumenauer pointed out Tuesday that over the last decade, Congress has had to move more than $50 billion from the general treasury to the Highway Trust Fund, as the gas tax has not kept up with highway spending.

In 2011, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a study that explored how a VMT system might work. That report suggested devices could be fitted onto cars that log how far they have traveled, and these devices could be electronically read at gas stations to general tax bills for drivers.

The CBO called the VMT system a "practical option" for boosting revenue.

Also in 2011, the Department of Transportation wrote a legislative proposal for a VMT system. That bill called for the creation of a public affairs office to help sell the idea to American drivers — it said the office would "increase public awareness regarding the need for an alternative funding source for surface transportation programs and provide information on possible approaches."

These proposals, however, have been strongly opposed by conservatives, as well as privacy advocates who fear the government would have too much information at its fingertips about the driving habits of Americans.