No Money? Let’s Tax Per Mile!

Photo courtesy of
courtesy of ‘Kasabian/’

I hate waking up to stupid moronic ideas.

This morning, WUSA reports on a brilliant idea by Washington’s Council of Governments to fund a study of what kind of pay-per-mile plan would be accepted in the area.

The reasoning by these smart people COG is that with gas taxes remaining static and “the transportation system collapsing all around us” they want to find new sources of revenue to pay for roadwork and mass transit. (Edited: I actually agree with this premise; originally when I posted, I was incensed about the cost of the study, which IMNSHO is a waste of money because no one wants yet another tax.)

“One of the sources that’s been talked a lot about in academic circles is pricing highway use by miles. Now, we don’t know if that is something that makes a lot of sense to do…” remarks David Snyder of the Council’s Transportation Planning Board (emphasis mine).

You know, we Washingtonians can save you guys the $400K to conduct the study so that money can be put to better use: It’s a lame-ass stupid idea and I guarantee the public will tell you exactly where to stick your plans and models – right up a personal tunnel where the sun never shines.

Having lived in the DC area for ten years, Ben still loves to wander the city with his wife, shooting lots of photos and exploring all the latest exhibits and galleries. A certified hockey fanatic, he spends some time debating the Washington Capitals club with friends – but everyone knows of his three decade love affair with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

A professional writer, gamer, photographer, and Lego enthusiast, Ben remains captivated by DC and doesn’t plan on leaving any time soon.

Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Flickr 

26 thoughts on “No Money? Let’s Tax Per Mile!

  1. Ah. Don’t you feel better once you get that out of your system? I agree with you, BTW, since measuring how many miles you use will cost more than the tax will raise.

    But now back to the underlying problem. With transportation infrastructure problems in DC, and a lack of funding, where does the money come from?

  2. I love your blog, but this is a bad post ;). The idea is not stupid at all. In fact, it’s just whether or not we change now or later. At some point, revenue has to based on the actual use of the infrastructure, rather than the energy used to utilize it. Once electric cars are more common, this will be the only way to fairly tax transportation….

    The DC region is notoriously bad at managing transportation policy and funding it appropriately, and something has to be done.

  3. You know what I hate? Starting my morning with “stupid moronic” posts like this. Let’s run down the list of why this post is foolish, narrow-minded, and mis-leading:

    a) The TPB (the transportation arm of MWCOG) has merely approved the action to seek federal funds for a study in partnership with the Brookings Institution. So it’s neither guaranteed, nor final.

    b) You’ve taken the quote out of context. If you actually read the rest of it, it’s quite reasonable. It’s just a study, for crying out loud!

    c) You don’t think that’s a good idea to explore the idea that the people who use infrastructure should pay for it? 30+% of Arlington residents don’t commute by car, but their taxes pay for the current road infrastructure at the same rate. How is that fair? Especially since most of the commuters on Arlington roads are from outside the county. I’ll be willing to bet that those values are even higher within the DC city limits.

    d) The idea is called “congestion pricing”, and it works in London. As a matter of fact, a study of congestion pricing in London found that car and bus riders had a net economic gain from it’s implementation. Try doing a search for it on, and you can learn about it.

    e) It has been shown to reduce VMT, thereby saving money on road maintenance/building, as well as reducing emissions, and making for healthier citizens (read anything about health-care lately?)

    Try educating yourself before you spew inane garbage like this. Maybe you just haven’t had your coffee this morning, but this is one of the most foolish posts I’ve seen on WLDC in quite some time. I’d expect better from the “Talk’n Transit” beat writer. But I guess you’ve just clearly stated your bias. We may all love DC, but apparently we don’t all love critical thinking. What’s so bad about trying to think about new approaches to a problem that has yet to be solved?

    …and I thought that DC was one of the best educated areas in the nation…

  4. @Irate Reader:

    a) So, we should feel better because it’s only using Federal Money, to which we also contribute?

    b) Perhaps we should follow that with a study on the wetness of water, or the crunchiness of crackers. Commuter taxes aren’t going to fly.

    c) Do you really mean to say that 30% of Arlingtonians never leave their homes? Just because 30% of the county is car-free doesn’t mean they’re not consumers of the road system in the county. Buses use the roads, and so do delivery services bringing them goods and services. They might use *less* but their investment is less, as they’re not paying the PPT, or gasoline taxes which also get invested in our roads.

  5. Not to say that I agree with everything Ben wrote (and I don’t), but I think you can understand being a bit frustrated at the idea of spending money to ask people if they’re okay with you raising their taxes, because I can pretty much promise the answer’s going to be “We don’t want you raising our taxes.”

    We do have to have the debate about how to pay for our infrastructure, surely, but is “scientific polling” of the population as to who would like a hand in their wallet really necessary?

  6. Let’s say a lot of people want something, say, widgets. But if there are more people who want widgets than there are widgets, what would the supplier of widgets do? Raise prices. Is that a “stupid” idea? Yet, when applied to driving, people think it’s ridiculous. It’s not as far-fetched as people think–what is shocking is the challenge to most Americans’ thinking that driving is “free”.

    However, driving is not free. The infrastructure is expensive to maintain, and there’re other costs that drivers pass on to the communities the drive through. For example, the space required for parking, the health costs of pollution, etc.

    The money has to come from somewhere, and the current gas tax is not enough. Also, the gas tax is collected where one buys gas–but that’s not necessarily where one does most of one’s driving (and it doesn’t account for driving in peak times, when demand is higher).

    In the core of our region, demand to drive on roads during peak hours far exceeds supply. The roads are scarce resource. Employing charges is a way to manage demand. Of course no one ever likes fees, and if there are other ways to manage demand, I’m sure MWCOG would love to hear them. (Though on that note, creating more roads isn’t the answer–there isn’t the space, and more roads actually induces more demand, resulting in *more* people driving.)

  7. @KG: I think I’d feel better about this if the MWCOG had any honest-to-God power in this situation. They’re a coalition with no requirements for action. Meaning, they could come to consensus, and then half the localities could easily pull out and do nothing.

  8. There’s a significant difference between whether something will be popular with the public and whether or not it’s a good idea.

    I actually don’t think this is a bad idea at all. It could help push companies to allow a more liberal telecommuting policy for employees, it could encourage use of public transportation, and it could raise money for the construction of public transportation and infrastructure.

    As someone who commutes 120 miles per day, I don’t necessarily want to pay per mile. But just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean I’d call it stupid or bad public policy.

    So will it fly with commuters and taxpayers? Probably not. Should it? Maybe.

  9. @Tom

    a) No – I’m saying that this is about seeking funds, nothing has been spent. But seriously you’re going to complain about $400,000 out of the Federal Budget that you’ve already payed for? I don’t like war, but the DOD get billions of dollars for it. I’m willing to spend $400,000 to explore something that might actually improve my life. I mean, really, that’s less than was spent on the DARPA Grand Challenge, and that has had little practical applications for the every-day person.

    b) Sure, as long as you keep having that attitude. Like I said, the London implementation of this solution actually saved people money. Maybe people can actually learn about the benefits first, before dismissing it out of hand, as both you and Ben have.

    c) No – as I said – they pay at the same rate as those who do. The 10 miles that I drive a week on Arlington roads has a much lower impact in than the (hypothetical) 50 miles that you drive. I pay the same PPT that you do for my vehicle and gasoline taxes don’t even begin to pay for maintenance. Why should I subsidize your lifestyle? I’m happy to pay my fair share.

  10. I’m more ticked off that they’re spending $400K on a study where the obvious result is going to be apparent (all people will hear is “one more tax” and refute the study) – and in that, I agree with Fairfax City Councilman Dan Drummond, who dissented on the vote on conducting the study. (His statement? “A study isn’t an act of necessity in a recession.” He also questioned whether it was appropriate for a regional body like the TPB to engage the public in discussions about fees and taxes.)

    Is there a better way to cover infrastructure costs around here? Absolutely. Let’s start first with fixing up the misappropriations of funds that is chronic around here and better manage people’s money, rather than just suggesting slapping down yet another tax to “fix everything.” THEN we can sit down and explore new options and sources of revenues.

  11. This is like the time that Wayan went on a rant explaining that DC’s high HIV rate didn’t matter since it wasn’t affecting the WeLoveDC demographic. Are you guys auditioning for opinion-writing positions at the Examiner or something?

  12. a) I’m just saying, if we’re not willing to invest local dollars from local taxstreams, why are we doing this? The “don’t like war” canard is irrelevant here.

    b) I have a business that’s predicated on being able to travel freely inside the greater DC area. If I have to start paying by the mile, and I won’t be alone here, my business is far from unique, we’re going to have to raise our rates and pass that cost increase on to our customers. If you’re okay with services that you use that are reliant on transportation (and think about it, that’s a lot of them) increasing the cost to you as a consumer, then fine. Just don’t expect me to like it, because I hate having to tell my clients things like, “Well, due to increased costs of moving around, I have to raise your rate, or add trip charges.”

    C) It’s not a linear relationship, though. You’re not using 1/5th of the services that I use, because you’re still dependent on delivery trucks, Fire & EMS services (costs we all share), the FedEx guy (costs we all share) and other services that are transportation based.

    Nice value judgment on me there in the last paragraph, by the way.

  13. @Tom

    My apologies – it was meant as a “you” directed at those who utilize a resource at a greater rate, no you specifically.

    Let try this:
    “You” and “I” use roads for the following purposes:
    -Public services (Fire, Police, EMS, etc)
    -Private services (deliveries, plumbers, etc)
    -Personal use (commuting, traveling to visit friends, etc.)

    If we have to pay per mile, both “you” and “me” will see the same increase in cost for Public Services. Both “you” and “me” will see the same increase in the cost of Private Services. However, “you” will see in increase (by your logic – more on that in a second) in the cost of Personal Use that is proportional to your usage, while “I” will not. That seems fair. It’s not linear, but only one part of the equation (which is a linear component) changes.

    Also, if applied correctly, this will involve a reduction is traffic, meaning that you can get to your appointments easier, with less fuel usage. This means higher productivity and more money in your pocket. As long as the pricing does not exceed your benefit (an important consideration in the implementation). This logic can also be applied to delivery services, who will have increased efficiency, due to lower traffic “costs”. This raises the possibility that the costs for delivery services could actually decrease .

    I’m not claiming to be an expert. I’m just asking that we think critically about the issue before we throw it out. Saying that “it’ll never” fly, without finding out is inexcusable. Lots of people thought that the passage of NEPA would destroy the world economy. Well – we’re still here.

  14. @Tom, as a brief aside, why would Fedex or other delivery companies be exempt from paying the per mile taxes if your company would not be? In the end, the consumer is still paying for it. They benefit from the maintained roads and they are still paying for it…but only the very minimal amount that they benefit from it, as opposed to those that use it daily.

    Unfortunately the general fight here all goes back to raising taxes. Nobody ever wants taxes raised and nobody ever wants their services cut. Unfortunately we live in the real world where one, or both, of those things has to happen often to maintain a balance. The idea behind a consumption tax for transportation actually does make a lot of sense, certainly more than the current gas tax approach. It does not fit our changing energy and transportation needs. I think getting outraged over a relatively minimal amount of money being spent to understand if this proposed model could work, and if so, how it would, does not make much sense. I’d be way more outraged if they wanted to implement this new taxation model WITHOUT a stud of any kind and just threw it on us. The study is clearly not just a bunch of people asking citizens if they want higher taxes. It is much, much more than that and is even explained in the full quote in the article.

  15. Unfortunately, for all of the knee-jerk rhetoric that goes along with raising taxes, we forget that taxes are the only solution to the tragedy of the commons.

    @Tom, you describe this perfectly. Your business model is derived in part by not paying anything additional to move from place to place around the DC area. Right now you count that as a non-cost to your customers, who don’t have to pay for it. But those roads cost real money, and their maintenance costs real money. So what you are doing is shifting the costs of your use. You are paying for them anyway, but not as a direct cost just as an indirect cost. And unless we do more improvement to the infrastructure, the indirect costs will continue to mount – more traffic, bad roads, and other delays that you will have to pass on to your customers.

    A direct tax has one other benefit that an indirect one lacks – it causes you to examine your usage in terms of actual costs. If you can cut down on trips, you save. Right now the model is use as much as you want, and pay the same. (I’m excluding gasoline taxes, which are pay by use, as they have complex issues around jurisdictions that would be too lengthy for this thread.)

    @Ben, your argument that “more efficiency would eliminate the need for more taxes” looks good, but is inevitably an empty argument. I hear this a lot from my conservative friends when they hear “tax increases”. But how do you implement it?

    To be more specific, I wonder why these “obvious” ideas aren’t being implemented now. Is the assumption that anyone who goes to work for a government office gets a “shot” that makes them unable to find efficiencies? Or that they just ignore the obvious solutions? I suspect that the simple idea is actually incredibly complex and difficult to implement. So, how do we do that?

    Until I hear more about how we fix the inefficiencies, I will continue to translate that in to “an overly simple idea to a very complex real problem.”

  16. Tom–but that’s just it: moving freely will become harder if there’s more and more traffic. In the end, we wall pay for congestion in one way or another. If traffic cannot be managed, we will pay in time, gas, poor air quality, and additional congestion.

    It’s a tough problem, and I don’t know how well congestion pricing would work. However, it seems only fair: people pay more for plane and train tickets to travel at more convenient times because there’s more demand. Why shouldn’t it be the same for roads?

    Anyway, congestion pricing seems to have helped traffic in central London, though it isn’t quite the panacea that some might have hoped it to be:

    On a lighter note: in case you thought we had it bad here, the rich in Sao Paulo travel by helicopter to beat the traffic. However, in a recent challenge, riding a bike was the fastest way to the route, taking 22 minutes and beating the helicopter by 10 minutes. The car came in second to last, and it beat someone who walked by only 10 minutes.

  17. The gas taxes ARE consumption taxes. You use the roads more, you use more gas, you pay more in taxes. If you’re thinking that it’s not enough to cover things, then you should be pushing for higher gas taxes.

  18. It could be a lot worse.

    They could charge you based on TIME SPENT on the roadways… ponder that one next time you’re stuck on the Beltway. ;)

  19. @Elliotte – Gas taxes are consumption taxes, and so they count. But the devil is in the details. Gas taxes at the state level (which go to service most of the roads and other public transportation) aren’t evenly distributed. Each state in the region (counting DC as a state just for this conversation) has its own gasoline taxes to pay for roads. But a commuter who purchases gasoline in VA doesn’t pay for DC roads – they only pay for VA roads.

    A few attempts have been made by DC to get the two other states to fund road work around the district – and neither MD or VA want to transfer the money. The courts struck down a commuter tax a while back. If DC raises the gasoline tax in the district, more people will buy gasoline in VA or MD. That wipes out that consumption based solution.

    Until there is a multi-state fuel tax jurisdiction in the area to pay for all DC and DC suburban roads (and I’m not holding my breath on that) the take will never be even.

  20. In London, the implementation of congestion pricing saw a 27% decrease in traffic entering the city that could have been charged (cars, minicabs, vans, and delivery vehicles), and a 14% decrease in overall traffic entering the city (that includes buses, bicycles, motorcycles, etc.). That decrease is even better when you consider the corresponding increases of 23% more buses, 17% more taxis, and 12% more motorcycles (all exempt from the pricing). Those are numbers from the first year of implementation, the numbers get better over time.

    When you consider that the traffic/congestion relationship is not linear, and that congestion can often be relieved by removing a relatively small number of vehicles from the road, I think that it could make a huge difference in traffic if properly implemented.

    Let’s educate people, study it, and research if it’s a solution here.

    (I keep using London because it’s the best case that I know of, if you know of others, please share)

    Increased gas taxes is a nice idea. Unfortunately, that hasn’t worked as a real solution. That’s why I say we make an effort to explore other possible solutions. If we can make something else work, or modify something that exists, then great.

  21. A gas tax is not an adequate consumption tax at all. You are taxed based on how much gas you consume, not how much you use our transportation infrastructure. When this was first implemented, it made more sense than it does now for sure. But the two factors are no longer as directly related as they once were. And while it is great to reward those who use less gas, it doesn’t help pay for the roads they are using. The government is spending tons of money to encourage people to use less fuel, and that is a great thing…but that of course at the same time only further bankrupts our road system.

    A gas tax just does not work at all for our changing energy and transportation needs.

  22. I am far from an expert on transit taxes or anything, but based just on that article this seems like an ok idea. The people who most use the roads pay the most for upkeep. People who choose to live closer to where they work, take public transport, etc, pay less.

    Doing something else – say, levying an across-the-board tax on all area residents – seems far less fair, really, and one way or another they have to squeeze out some cash. If this solution also nudges people to make choices that ease congestion, help the environment, and encourage dense and vibrant live/work communities, that is only a big benefit to the region.

    $400,000 for research into an innovation that could actually save money for many residents and make commutes and neighborhoods better seems like a good investment.

  23. Isn’t there a federal gas tax? If so, then a driver that buys his gas in VA and then drives in DC is paying for driving on those roads.

    If people buying gas outside of DC and then driving in DC is such a big deal, why not turn the roads in DC into one big toll road?