July 6, 2020

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Vehicle Miles Traveled Tax Proposal: Part of the War on Rural America

Published Thursday, March 31, 2011
by Andrew Langer

Last week, the Congressional Budget Office released a report saying that taxing Americans on how far they drive each year would be both practicable AND practical.  IFL believes this to be part-and-parcel of the left's War on Rural America - and will be putting together a petition drive saying just that!


Published at the Daily Caller on March 30, 2011


Another Battle in the War on Rural America


Rural Americans have long-felt like second-class political citizens.  Their political clout is dulled by their lack of population, their way of life is largely-misunderstood by those who grew up in urban and suburban America, and in many cases (especially out West), their self-governance is hampered by the sheer amount of land under federal control within their midst.


The founders well-understood the political tension between rural and urban populations—and they created both the Electoral College and the structure of the Senate to help equalize what otherwise might have been a lopsided political landscape.  It’s no great irony, then, that in the War on Rural America, first the 17th Amendment took some of that rural political power away, and that the end to the Electoral College has become a regular quadrennial conversation.


The latest front in this war was opened up last Friday by the Congressional Budget Office.  Commissioned by a senate Democrat,  the CBO was tasked to examine whether or not a “Vehicle Mileage Tax” would be either practical or practicable. A vehicle mileage tax (or VMT) is just that:  it asks people to report on the mileage they drive in their family or business vehicles, and then levies a tax based on that amount.  It is, in fact, the direct opposite of the vehicle logs that people in businesses keep when they are seeking to deduct their “mileage traveled” expenses when they file their personal income taxes.


This is not a new idea—Obama Administration Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and others have proposed this in the past, but the idea has been shot down as too expensive or unworkable.  But this year the CBO study concluded that the VMT would be a “practical option for revenue enhancement” (read: an effective way to tax people).


What makes it most efficient is that it effectively transfers the burden of paying for the highest-cost roads (urban roads) to America’s rural residents.  While there has always been merit in having pay suburbanites pay for urban roads, cities and states have always found ways to do this—generally by using tolls and transportation fund-dedicated gas taxes collected in municipalities surrounding cities. 


But here we have a tax that will be levied on two classes of drivers: long distance drivers and those with heavier vehicles, two classes that are increasingly rare within cities.  Due to space and parking constraints, city dwellers buy smaller cars.  Moreover, given their city-driving advantages, hybrid-vehicles are more-commonly found in cities, which will give VMT tax payers in cities an additional leg up.   Furthermore, because of economic densities, there is less pressure on city-dwellers to drive distances to find basic goods and services.


Rural Americans, on the other hand, have to drive increased distances to find those basic goods and services.  What might be a mile drive to a grocery store in an urban or even suburban setting,  a rural American might have to drive ten, twenty, even fifty times that distance to make that same grocery run.  At the same time, because of the unique conditions presented by living in a rural setting,  those who live in these areas don’t have the luxury of choosing to drive smaller vehicles.

Whether it’s weather, road threats, or the need to carry larger cargo loads (so that fewer longer-distance trips need to be taken), rural Americans rely on trucks and SUVs as part of their everyday lives.  It’s not a style choice, but a palpable necessity—and this necessity could be taxed at a higher rate should a VMT be adopted.


In terms of commercial vehicles, anyone dependent upon driving to make deliveries would be impacted first and foremost.  But following that, we all would pay the price (a price we’re already starting to see given rising gas prices):  as the cost of delivering goods and services rises, the price we all pay for those goods and services rises as well.


The founders warned against this.  They knew that there would be ways in which America’s more-populated centers would try to make policy for their benefit at the expense of less-populated areas.  Some attempts would be overt, while others would be more subtle, and therefore more pernicious.  This is clearly one of latter.  It may be efficient—but that’s what makes it so dastardly.  Urban America, and its democratic congressional allies, needs to stop its  war on Rural America.


Andrew Langer is President of the Institute for Liberty.  He is currently writing a book called, “The War on Small Business”

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