Coming Soon to Your Car: The Tax Box
Politicians are ordinarily a bunch of dullards who can't put their pants on in the morning without assistance. But when it comes to developing schemes to separate the taxpayer from their hard earned coin, they are Einsteins, Jobs', and Edisons all rolled into one.
The latest illustration of this is a plan to help pay for infrastructure repairs by taxing car owners for every mile they drive. This will be accomplished by placing a black box in every automobile in America that will faithfully record every trip you take and generate a report for the government that tells them how much you owe.
Oh - did I mention the device might have GPS so that the government can track you whenever it pleases?
As America's road planners struggle to find the cash to mend a crumbling highway system, many are beginning to see a solution in a little black box that fits neatly by the dashboard of your car.
The devices, which track every mile a motorist drives and transmit that information to bureaucrats, are at the center of a controversial attempt in Washington and state planning offices to overhaul the outdated system for funding America's major roads.
The usually dull arena of highway planning has suddenly spawned intense debate and colorful alliances. Libertarians have joined environmental groups in lobbying to allow government to use the little boxes to keep track of the miles you drive, and possibly where you drive them — then use the information to draw up a tax bill.
The tea party is aghast. The American Civil Liberties Union is deeply concerned, too, raising a variety of privacy issues.
And while Congress can't agree on whether to proceed, several states are not waiting. They are exploring how, over the next decade, they can move to a system in which drivers pay per mile of road they roll over. Thousands of motorists have already taken the black boxes, some of which have GPS monitoring, for a test drive.
"This really is a must for our nation. It is not a matter of something we might choose to do," said Hasan Ikhrata, executive director of the Southern California Assn. of Governments, which is planning for the state to start tracking miles driven by every California motorist by 2025. "There is going to be a change in how we pay these taxes. The technology is there to do it."
The push comes as the country's Highway Trust Fund, financed with taxes Americans pay at the gas pump, is broke. Americans don't buy as much gas as they used to. Cars get many more miles to the gallon. The federal tax itself, 18.4 cents per gallon, hasn't gone up in 20 years. Politicians are loath to raise the tax even one penny when gas prices are high.
"The gas tax is just not sustainable," said Lee Munnich, a transportation policy expert at the University of Minnesota. His state recently put tracking devices on 500 cars to test out a pay-by-mile system. "This works out as the most logical alternative over the long term," he said.
Beware when a bureaucrat uses the word "logical" to describe any effort to tax us. I can assure you what's "logical" to government makes absolutely no sense to the rest of us.
And the technology is also there to listen in to every phone call, read our email, monitor our net surfing, and record our TV viewing habits but we resist the temptation to do that.
So, is there an alternative? Yes -- raise the gas tax:
Some transportation planners, though, wonder if all the talk about paying by the mile is just a giant distraction. At the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in the San Francisco Bay Area, officials say Congress could very simply deal with the bankrupt Highway Trust Fund by raising gas taxes. An extra one-time or annual levy could be imposed on drivers of hybrids and others whose vehicles don't use much gas, so they pay their fair share.
"There is no need for radical surgery when all you need to do is take an aspirin," said Randy Rentschler, the commission's director of legislation and public affairs. "If we do this, hundreds of millions of drivers will be concerned about their privacy and a host of other things."
Sorry, but that makes too much sense. It will never fly in the halls of government. So urban populations who can walk to work or take public transportation will avoid paying the gas tax altogether while suburban and rural drivers will pay through the nose.
Where I live, it's half an hour to a real grocery store, a 45 minute drive to the nearest mall, and an hour to a decent computer store. I imagine there are many millions who find themselves with similar or longer driving distances. We use more gas to get where we're going, hence we already pay more to service our roads than some urbanites who ride their bike or takes public transportation to work and shop. We don't have that luxury and never will.
This is an excellent plan to make ghost towns out of the suburbs. That's not their intent, but the effect on many drivers -- especially those who live in the outer rim of suburbs, or "ex-urbs" -- will be devastating. They will still have to pay for more gas than others while being socked with the additional expense of a tax on their mileage.