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Column: Don't use tolls, taxes or road user fees to punish drivers

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  • 1/4 SF Chronicle
    Published Sunday, January 4, 2009, by the San Francisco Chronicle Column Do not ask for whom the road tolls By Debra J. Saunders For lo these many years, the
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 6, 2009
      Published Sunday, January 4, 2009, by the San Francisco Chronicle


      Do not ask for whom the road tolls

      By Debra J. Saunders

      For lo these many years, the Democratic motorcade class has scolded
      American workers for driving gas-guzzling cars. Now that Americans
      have begun driving more fuel-efficient cars and driving less, how
      have the finger-waggers reacted? No, they are not planning a parade
      -- they already are working on a new tax on miles driven to make up
      for lost gasoline-tax revenue.

      With the help of a six-year, $2.1 million federal grant, Oregon Gov.
      Ted Kulongoski is moving forward with a proposal to tax Oregon drivers
      for the miles they drive. "As Oregonians drive less and demand more
      fuel-efficient vehicles, it is increasingly important that the state
      find a new way, other than the gas tax, to finance our transportation
      system," Kulongoski told the Albany Democrat Herald.

      Why not simply raise the gas tax so that Hummer owners continue to
      pay more than drivers of 4-cylinder put-puts?

      "It's very difficult to raise the gas tax when the price of gasoline
      is so volatile," answered James Whitty, Kulongoski's point man on
      the Oregon Mileage Fee Concept. (In lieu of the term "concept,"
      many Oregonians might prefer to substitute the word "squeeze.")
      Politically, Whitty explained, raising taxes has been untenable in
      Oregon and on Capitol Hill since 1993.

      In November 2007, a task force released the findings of the Road User
      Fee Pilot Program. Guess what: It found that a road tax has more
      advantages than disadvantages. In that self-congratulatory tone
      perfected by bureaucrats who have succeeded in finding what they
      always planned on finding, Whitty noted in the report, "The Oregon
      Department of Transportation concludes that the Oregon Road User Fee
      Pilot Program tested the critical elements of the Oregon Mileage
      Concept and yielded the result -- Concept Proven."

      Not so fast, buckaroo.

      If the goal of the green brain trust is to reduce gas consumption,
      then Oregon shouldn't dump a tax that punishes guzzling and replace it
      with a tax that dings Hummers and hybrids alike. (Whitty noted that
      the state could choose to charge gas-burning wheels more per mile than
      itty-bitty cars. Hello. That's what the gasoline tax already does.)

      Whitty believes that the state should prepare for the day when
      100mpg vehicles and electric cars dominate the road. Oregon, he
      noted, boasts the country's highest ratio of hybrid cars -- 30,000
      out of 3.8 million vehicles. With oil trading below $50 per barrel,
      there would be less incentive to buy a hybrid -- yet the green
      brain trust is busy working on another reason to not buy a hybrid.

      Some critics have privacy issues with under-the-hood transponders that
      could track where a car travels. No worries. The 2007 paper asserts
      the Oregon plan "protects privacy. Places driven cannot be revealed
      nor are they stored."

      Maybe the pilot program was set up that way. But Whitty told me the
      transponders are supposed to track out-of-state driving. And down
      here, where I get a regular bill with the dates and times for when I
      paid to cross the Bay Bridge, it's hard to imagine that after built-in
      transponders are standard in every new auto, nanny state governments
      won't come up with a menu of behaviors beyond driving too much -- as
      in, driving in cities, driving during rush hour -- to enable states
      to levy extra taxes.

      Follow the money and the red flag. The road-tax report gushes about
      how mileage transponders can be used to implement "congestion pricing"
      -- by adding fees for driving in urban areas or during rush hour.
      Think the London program that charges motorists $15 per day to drive
      in the central city. Our Betters in Europe like it -- so of course,
      Davos-happy solons from American cities (San Francisco, New York) want
      their subjects to support this pricey trend.

      Robert Poole, director of transportation studies at the Reason
      Foundation, thinks a congestion tax makes sense for London and
      "probably makes sense for Manhattan." But: "There's not enough
      congestion on the streets of San Francisco to make congestion pricing
      a solution to a real problem. It's a solution looking for a problem."

      My big fear isn't being tailed by a black helicopter on my way to the
      grocery store. My fear is that that enviro do-gooders will use this
      unnecessary road tax to devise new busybody regulations just to keep
      me out of my car -- when gridlock, the cost and stress already serve
      as disincentives.

      My fear is that my tax dollars will be used to bankroll a scheme to
      punish me for using roads my tax dollars already paid for, because
      someday I might own an electric car.

      You can e-mail Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@...
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