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Tax for Driving? An Economic Engine

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Let's spin some straw into gold. There is a hunger in the Whitehouse and state houses, on Wall Street and Main Streets for something, anything, to turn our financial distress and disappearing budgets into a future that restores hope, prosperity and confidence in government. I see the shimmering gold that keeps getting mistaken for impractical straw. You just have to get the right angle to the light.

The glimmer lasted only a few hours when late last week the AP reported that Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood said: ''We should look at the vehicular miles program where people are actually clocked on the number of miles that they traveled'' as a substitute for the gas tax.

But within hours of its first report, transportation department spokeswoman Lori Irving declared: "The policy of taxing motorists based on how many miles they have traveled is not and will not be Obama administration policy." And later this sentiment was reiterated later by President Obama's own Press Secretary Robert Gibbs: "It is not and will not be the policy of the Obama administration.''

And that shimmering straw was thrown back into its dark policy-wonk corner again. But hold on. Let's re-examine the implications of paying for roads by the mile rather than by the gallon.

Point zero (not a point for this story but we need to put it behind us so that you can focus): your locational privacy as you drive can be protected. Really. We can deliver on that so put it out of your mind.

Point number one: if we follow through with the Economic Stimulus Bill just signed, state and federal governments are going to be replacing a whole bunch of old fuel-inefficient cars with fuel efficient ones, quickly if they follow the promised timetable. And then the rest of us are supposed to be replacing ours similarly, if the car companies and the EPA follow through with their recent promises. And so begins the inexorable melting of the tried and trusty gas-tax that finances our transportation infrastructure. Inadequate gas taxes, inadequate infrastructure.

Secondly, a VMT tax requires technology. And because cars and roads go everywhere, so too will this technology need to be everywhere. And therein lies the gold!

Unless you are a communications industry nerd, you'll have missed a very short and far-sighted clause in the Economic Recovery Bill: smart-grid demonstrations projects - 50% of which will be financed by us, the taxpayers -- must "utilize open protocols and standards (including Internet-based protocols and standards) if available and appropriate."

Imagine if the VMT technology applied this same language. Instead of having a single purposed transponder in every car, you'd have a device that could communicate and interact with the also ubiquitous and also everywhere smart grid. Are you beginning to see the shine?

Imagine further, that at your own option, and thanks to the genius of the private sector, this device would be much like any smart phone or laptop. You could download any number of applications. In fact, you might consider this VMT infrastructure -- end user financed because we want to pick our own devices to suit our own needs -- to be the nub of a mobile internet.

And like the Internet, it is a network, routing data over cars, through smart grids, and throughout our environment, in a dynamic decentralized way. A network owned by no one, but powered by all of us. Just like the Internet.

And just like the Internet -- remember the glow emanating from the late 90s? -- this will be an economic engine like no other. Is this a fantasy? The military is using just this technology to connect people, tanks, and planes in a decentralized robust and secure network in Iraq right this minute.

What did our last President say? Bring it on! Bring on that VMT tax! But make it shimmer, turn it into real gold by requiring open standards, Internet protocols and opening up excess network capacity that is funded with our tax dollars. No, it won't happen overnight. That only happens in fairytales.

Robin Chase is a transportation entrepreneur, founder of Zipcar, GoLoco, and Meadow Networks.