If Senator John Thune would like to rally his Republican colleagues to rescue his effort to obstruct the bipartisan compromise infrastructure bill, maybe he should whoop and holler about Section 13002, the National Motor Vehicle Per-Mile User Fee Pilot.
Highway funding is based on gasoline taxes. But as we get smarter and design cars that use less gasoline or no gasoline at all, we end up with less revenue to maintain our highways. That’s (ostensibly, though I sense green loathing from my red friends) why South Dakota’s Republican legislators imposed a new tax on electric vehicles this year. And that’s why the infrastructure bill proposes to test drive a program to tax all drivers based on how far they drive, regardless of what fuel they use.
The pilot program would recruit volunteer drivers from all 50 states, D.C., and Puerto Rico to test various means of tracking mileage in commercial and passenger vehicles. Volunteers would choose one mileage-tracking tool, such as third-party on-board diagnostic devices, smart phone apps, automakers’ built-in telemetry, or data obtained from insurance companies or fueling stations. The bill requires the Department of Transportation to protect the privacy of volunteers and secure the data they provide.
Transportation and the Treasury would work together to create a mechanism to collect taxes from drivers participating in the pilot (what? volunteer to pay taxes? that’ll take some true patriots!). Section 13002 says any revenue collected will go into the Highway Trust Fund, but it also authorizes the DOT to pay each volunteer “based on the vehicle miles submitted by the volunteer” for each calendar quarter. Volunteers would thus receive full refunds of the per-mile taxes they pay.
Conservative propagandists are already having fun saying a per-mile tax would violate President Joe Biden’s pledge not to raise taxes on Americans making $400K or less. One can argue that Section 13002 creates a new tax for volunteers, most of whom will likely be making less than $400K… but Section 13002 also apparently refunds those taxes, so this bill itself contains no net tax increase for those volunteers. If the pilot goes well and Congress decides in 2027 to enact a per-mile tax, then certainly that future bill would constitute a new tax on all of the driving public, but that’s a hypothetical, not the bill before us.
In addition to hollering “new tax!”, Senator Thune might also re-energize his unhinged QAnon base and maybe even stir some better-hinged patriotic liberal concern by hollering about privacy concerns. Do we really want Big Brother tracking where we drive? The bill could get around such concerns simply by having drivers report odometer readings rather than location—
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a well-known critic of surveillance, favors a type of program that may periodically read mileage but wouldn’t track drivers’ locations.
“He is opposed to all approaches that lead to the persistent location tracking of personally owned vehicles, but supports creative pilots to find other solutions,” Wyden spokesperson Keith Chu said in an email. “Senator Wyden also believes more study and oversight of privacy issues is necessary before a permanent [vehicle miles traveled, or VMT, proposal] is adopted” [Sara Sirota, “Infrastructure Bill Could Enable Government to Track Drivers’ Travel Data,” The Intercept, 2021.08.05].
—but hey, Senator Thune’s job isn’t to craft effective policy; it’s to confuse the issue and obstruct any progress! So get on it, Big John! Shout “Taxes!” and “Tracking devices!” and get your party back to blocking great public investments in infrastructure!