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Mileage Tax Considered By Obama Transportation Secretary LaHood

JOAN LOWY   02/20/09 10:33 PM ET   AP

Lahood

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Friday rejected his transportation secretary's suggestion that the administration consider taxing motorists based on how many miles they drive instead of how much gasoline they buy.

"It is not and will not be the policy of the Obama administration," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters, when asked for the president's thoughts about Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's suggestion, raised in an interview with The Associated Press a daily earlier.

Gasoline taxes that for nearly half a century have paid for the federal share of highway and bridge construction can no longer be counted on to raise enough money to keep the nation's transportation system moving, LaHood told the AP.

"We should look at the vehicular miles program where people are actually clocked on the number of miles that they traveled," the former Illinois Republican lawmaker said in the AP interview.

LaHood spokeswoman Lori Irving said Friday that the secretary was speaking of the idea only in general terms, not as something being implemented as administration policy.

Most transportation experts see a vehicle miles-traveled tax as a long-term solution, but Congress is being urged to move in that direction now by funding pilot projects.

The idea also is gaining ground in several states. The governor of Idaho is talking about such a program. A North Carolina panel suggested in December the state start charging motorists a quarter-cent for every mile as a substitute for the gas tax. Rhode Island's governor, however, has expressed opposition to a panel's recommendation in December that the state charge motorists a half-cent for every mile driven in addition to the gas tax.

A tentative plan in Massachusetts to use GPS chips in vehicles to charge motorists by the mile has drawn complaints from drivers who say it's an Orwellian intrusion by government into the lives of citizens. Other motorists say it eliminates an incentive to drive more fuel-efficient cars since gas guzzlers will be taxed at the same rate as fuel sippers.

Besides a VMT tax, more tolls for highways and bridges and more government partnerships with business to finance transportation projects are other funding options, LaHood, one of two Republicans in Obama's Cabinet, said in the interview Thursday.

"What I see this administration doing is this _ thinking outside the box on how we fund our infrastructure in America," he said.

LaHood said he firmly opposes raising the federal gasoline tax in the current recession.

The program that funds the federal share of highway projects is part of a surface transportation law that expires Sept. 30. Last fall, Congress made an emergency infusion of $8 billion to make up for a shortfall between gas tax revenues and the amount of money promised to states for their projects. The gap between money raised by the gas tax and the cost of maintaining the nation's highway system and expanding it to accommodate population growth is forecast to continue to widen.

Among the reasons for the gap is a switch to more fuel-efficient cars and a decrease in driving that many transportation experts believe is related to the economic downturn. Electric cars and alternative-fuel vehicles that don't use gasoline are expected to start penetrating the market in greater numbers.

A blue-ribbon national transportation commission is expected to release a report next week recommending a VMT tax.

The system would require all cars and trucks be equipped with global satellite positioning technology, a transponder, a clock and other equipment to record how many miles a vehicle was driven, whether it was driven on highways or secondary roads, and even whether it was driven during peak traffic periods or off-peak hours.

The device would tally how much tax motorists owed depending upon their road use. Motorists would pay the amount owed when it was downloaded, probably at gas stations at first, but an alternative eventually would be needed.

Rob Atkinson, chairman of the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission, the blue-ribbon group that is developing future transportation funding options, said moving to a national VMT tax would take about a decade.

Privacy concerns are based more on perception than any actual risk, Atkinson said. The satellite information would be beamed one way to the car and driving information would be contained within the device on the car, with the amount of the tax due the only information that's downloaded, he said.

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On the Net:

National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission: http://financecommission.dot.gov

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Filed by Rachel Weiner  |