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Thune Could Hullaballize over Infrastructure Bill’s Per-Mile Driver Tax and Tracking

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!


  1. Bill McClellan 2021-08-09

    This could be very easily accomplished with the same technology that’s used in reading utility meters. There would be no location tracking involved.

  2. Porter Lansing 2021-08-09

    A myriad of secret to you, information is already gathered on every auto trip you make, how fast you’re going, where you go, and whether you maintain your vehicle pursuant to warranty regulations.

    It’d be easy to gather the info through 5G, right John? #grins

  3. Mark Anderson 2021-08-09

    Jezz Porter, I didn’t know I worked for UPS?

  4. Chris S. 2021-08-09

    So instead of imperfect but easy to implement taxes that we already have — gas tax and vehicle registration tax — we need to find a new way that’s either incredibly invasive (monitor everyone’s vehicle movements!) or incredibly cumbersome (periodically report your odometer reading or bring it in to be checked!). Those schemes are either designed by technocratic whiz kids who always think another layer of complexity is better, or they’re designed by Republicans to make people hate taxes.

    We don’t need any more invasions of our privacy, and we don’t need any more indirect taxes on our time. Keep it simple. Just raise the gas tax! And, if you can legitimately justify charging electric vehicles for road usage, then just raise the registration fee for them.

  5. Porter Lansing 2021-08-09

    Stay in SD, Chris. The “twenty years behind what’s going on” lifestyle is perfect for you.

    For me, privacy is insignificant and the sooner you adapt to the “new America” the more ability you’ll have to make money and provide for your cats and dogs.

  6. Chris S. 2021-08-09

    Wow, Porter, that was amazingly hostile and unprovoked.

    I’m very pro-electric car, btw, as well as pro-privacy *and* not making people’s lives more difficult through excessive, unnecessary bureaucracy. Apologies for having offended you, I guess.

  7. Loren 2021-08-09

    Seems incredibly easy. We all have to renew our tags every year. Just create another space to report your mileage reading on the form and you get your tax miles. You could lie, I suppose, but you would wind up with a huge payment when you sell/trade and the title transfer reported mileage catches up to you. You won’t need mile by mile government tracking, just self-reporting. I suppose there are some Dale Gribbles out there, but my mileage is no secret.

  8. Chris S. 2021-08-09

    Loren, that could work. (My mileage isn’t any secret either.) Though there’s still the issue of people fudging the numbers—which as you note could be caught later, but then some hapless official has to impose a big fine for misreporting and endure the cheater’s anger—but I don’t understand why it’s better to make people fill out more paperwork in the first place. Even if it’s just bringing in your odometer number, which isn’t terribly difficult, it’s one more thing to do, and some people aren’t going to remember it, and have to go back out to the vehicle for it. Nothing earth shaking, but one more little annoyance that makes people dislike “big government.” Meanwhile, almost nobody would notice an increase in the gas tax, given how much prices fluctuate anyway.

    Just my opinion, obviously, but the suggested new layer of bureaucracy seems a little like a solution in search of a problem.

  9. Richard Schriever 2021-08-09

    For electric vehicles – a surcharge on the KW charged works just like a fuel tax. When one plugs in one’s electric vehicle, the VIN is recognized by the charger software and applies the appropriate rate – based on vehicle GVW. Heavier vehicles put more wear on roads vs. lighter ones.

  10. Porter Lansing 2021-08-09

    No apology needed, Chris.
    I didn’t realize you are an anti-government, anti-tax, anti-paperwork, no change is good change lady.

  11. John 2021-08-09

    Tax vehicles exponentially proportional to their weight, including ag vehicles. The science is clear. Heavy vehicles exponentially cause higher road damage and wear and tear. Stop subsidizing stupid.

  12. Arlo Blundt 2021-08-09

    Well…I side with John on the tax by weight idea….trucks cause a disproportionate amount of damage to roadways….roads would last a century if only cars drove on them. Chris also has her thinking cap on….the less new techno bureaucracy we have to absorb, the better.

  13. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2021-08-10

    Porter has a reasonable point about the complete erosion of privacy in the 21st century. I may fret about the government having access to my travel log, but every one of us in this conversation engages the Internet daily, and we each likely carry a GPS-enabled phone in our pockets everywhere, meaning if nefarious forces want to know not just where we are but what we’re doing and buying and maybe even thinking, they can form an actionable (taxable, marketable) profile from our data trail.

    But I’m still open to seeking alternative taxing methods that don’t involve literal location tracking. And readers here have offered numerous such alternatives. As Bill notes, we could use smart odometers that simply report the mile count without location. We could more easily adopt Loren’s plan of self-reporting our odometer reading and collecting the tax with our annual license fees. As Loren notes, every driver will face accountability when time comes to sell the car; maybe we could add a little more honesty by allowing police to check automobile mileage when they stop motorists for other reasons… or maybe we could include odometer checks with our sobriety checkpoints.

    And as John suggests, maybe per-mile isn’t the best, fairest way to tax. Maybe weight better determines the costs each user imposes on our collective highway bill. Maybe my driving my compact car 10,000 miles a year grinds out fewer potholes than the big heavy diesel dually logging 5,000 miles hauling heavy equipment and dirt around town.

  14. Francis Schaffer 2021-08-10

    I think maybe we need to spend our money on road maintenance more wisely. Here in Spink/Hand counties the roads which have the highest cost of maintenance and repair have trapped water on both sides seeping into the road bed. When the water is removed or at best lowered and maintained at the lower level less money is spent on repair/maintenance forevermore. So at minimum townships/counties/states need to address trapped water in their right of way as another method of road maintenance/repair.

  15. Francis Schaffer 2021-08-10

    By the way either we actively remove trapped water or wait for a severe drought, the roads will be fine. Most businessmen would prefer the removal of the water versus the drought, either will work; yet designed drainage is more predictable than suffering through the uncertainty and stress of drought.

  16. Richard Schriever 2021-08-10

    One truck causes exponentially damage to our roads vs. one car. What does that actually mean in proportion? There are various analysis out there. Here are two. 1. Trucks cause 99% of the damage and wear on our roads, but pay only 33%of the construction and maintenance costs. 2. one truck causes 2500X more stress on the roadway to one car. Heavy farm equipment – more relevant on our county and township roads, of course, pays ZERO toward any construction or maintenance costs – off-road fuel is untaxed.,only%20pay%20for%2035%20percent%20of%20the%20maintenance.

  17. cibvet 2021-08-10

    If the media is to be believed, Thune voted against the infrastructure bill and Rounds skipped the vote,but said he would vote against it.Perhaps SD should get nothing then since we are already on the public dole.

  18. mike from iowa 2021-08-10

    OT….In a show of desperation or a show 9f integrity, Cuomo resigns as Guv of New York, effective in 2 weeks.

  19. Guy 2021-08-10

    Cibvet, yep, Rounds bailed on the bill. I wonder if John Thune got to him at the last minute? Thune: How’s it going to look for me trying to become the next Senate Majority Leader if Mike Rounds doesn’t support me in voting against the bill??? I wonder if that’s how it went down in Thune’s office. Thune’s Senate career is apparently MORE important than an infrastructure bill that could help his constituents.

  20. O 2021-08-10

    Maybe Rounds finally got the Message from Donald Trump that any Republican that vote for the package is on the naughty list.

  21. Donald Pay 2021-08-10

    O, Rounds gets to play both sides. He was for it before he was against it. Never underestimate the duplicity of Michael Rounds.

  22. Guy 2021-08-10

    Donald, yep. “Playing both sides.” I can clearly see Thune is in it for himself. John so desperately wants to be the next Senate Majority Leader as much as Kristi Noem wants to be Vice President or President. There’s definitely a “theme” going on here and it’s not about governing in the interests of everyday South Dakotans. So, why don’t South Dakota voters see right through these two?! Quit looking at the shiny objects, people!

  23. Guy 2021-08-10

    I’ll say it again: can we trade Thune for Kyrsten Sinema as our Senator? Kyrsten actually led on getting this bipartisan Infrastructure Bill through the Senate WITHOUT John Thune’s support.

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