House puts brakes on taxing cars by the mile

The House has approved an amendment that would prevent the Secretary of Transportation from exploring raising new highway revenues by taxing cars for each mile they drive.

Members are considering the 2013 spending bill for the Transportation Department and other agencies, and late Wednesday, they accepted an amendment from Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-Minn.) that would block any money in the bill from being used to explore a so-called Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) tax system. The House approved the language by voice vote.

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"There is an important need to come up with new, better ideas on how to appropriately fund our highway trust fund system," Cravaack said. "However, I'm here to tell you today that the concept of using a Vehicle Miles Traveled fee system is not one of those better ideas."

Cravaack said such a system would hurt rural drivers, cost a lot to implement, since it would require devices in each car to track how many miles have been driven, and could impinge on privacy rights.

"The potential for privacy abuses is a hazard waiting to happen. Government databases have already been compromised in the past, and this government system would be no exception," Cravaack said.

Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa) said he supported the language, in part because the Obama administration's Transportation Department said two years ago that it would not explore a VMT system. "So I don't see why the Secretary would need to do research or any kind of means of implementation if in fact they so strongly oppose this type of taxation," he said.

Nonetheless, draft legislation from the administration surfaced last year that included detailed plans for exploring such a system. That draft bill called for a "study framework" for a pilot VMT project, as well as a communications plan for explaining the system to the nation's drivers.

The draft bill also funded the VMT project for a total of $300 million through 2017.

Pressure has been building on the federal government to find new ways to raise highway revenue, as more fuel-efficient cars have led to reduced tax revenues.

On Wednesday night, Rep. John Olver (D-Mass.) said he opposes Cravaack's amendment because it would prevent the government from exploring a VMT option.

"The amendment is unfortunate, because we're probably going to have to use different kinds of money-raising mechanism in different parts of the country, and this one makes it even not possible for the administration to think about using a vehicle miles tax, even in the major urban areas of the country," Olver said.