South Florida drivers to take part in mileage-tax test

(SUN SENTINAL)   In the not-too-distant future, the government may be riding along with you, keeping tabs on when, where and how far you drive.

Instead of paying a gas tax at the pump, you would get a bill every month based on how much you use the roads. Sound far-fetched? It’s a lot closer to reality than you might realize.

South Florida is one of six areas in the country chosen to test such a system as an alternative to the gas tax you pay at the pump.

The University of Iowa is looking for 250 volunteers willing to have tracking devices similar to cell phones and SunPass transponders installed in their cars so researchers can record their mileage for the next 10 months. The study won’t track individual routes.

For their trouble, participants will get $895.

The equipped vehicles will send mileage data to a billing center that will compute a sample tax bill. Drivers will be able to see what they would have paid in mileage fees compared with what they pay now in gas taxes.

Drivers in Broward and Palm Beach counties now pay about 52 cents per gallon in federal, state and county gas taxes each time they fill up.

The $16.5 million study, authorized by Congress, hopes to address a looming consequence of the nation’s rush toward greater fuel efficiency as people drive less and buy cars with better gas mileage.

The Iowa researchers are launching the study today at Florida International University‘s Lehman Center for Transportation Research in Miami. Drivers also are taking part in Chicago; Albuquerque, N.M.; Portland, Maine; Wichita, Kan.; and Billings, Montana.

“The gas tax may have reached the end of its useful life,” said Paul Hanley, study co-director and head of the Transportation Policy Research Center at the Public Policy Center of the University of Iowa. “The results of this study could provide an alternative that is fairer, more stable and more flexible than the gas tax.”

Earlier this year, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood mentioned a mileage tax as a long-term solution to pay for transportation projects. But the Obama administration quickly countered it had no interest in such a tax.

About the same time, The National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission created by Congress suggested the nation needs to move to a new system by 2020 that taxes motorists according to how much they use roads.

Wendell Bruce, who frequently drives between Homestead and Fort Pierce for work, said he probably would pay more than people who drive less under a mileage-based system.

“I think it would be more fair for everybody,” said Bruce, 48, of Sunrise. “It’s a ticklish situation.”

The federal transportation trust fund, which pays for road, bridges and transit projects, is expected to run $8 billion short by August. Congress must put more money into the fund or raise the gas tax.

The federal gas tax, at 18.4 cents per gallon, hasn’t changed since 1993.

As people buy more fuel efficient cars and drive fewer miles, gas tax revenues have declined: $71 million less in 2008 than in 2007.

“The future is a system where paying is really based on how much we consume the transportation system as opposed to a blanket rate to go out and drive around,” said David Goldberg, spokesman for Transportation for America, a coalition of groups pressing for more alternatives to driving.

Oregon conducted a pilot program in 2007 in which 285 drivers agreed to be taxed on a per-mile fee that increased when they drove at rush hour or in congested areas.

About 91 percent of those surveyed said they preferred the mileage fee over the gas tax.

But a mileage-based taxing system worries owners of hybrids, who fear they may be charged the same rate as gas guzzlers. Many details remain to be worked out with such a system, including whether larger vehicles like SUVs should be taxed higher.

Peter Grigore, 60, of Boynton Beach, converted his Mercury Villager van into a homemade hybrid that he says is 50 percent more gas efficient.

“Of course it’s a good idea for [the government]. They’re going to make more money,” Grigore said. “I’m going to pay ’cause I’m driving extra miles?”

The “Big Brother” aspect also has motorists concerned. A major hurdle to taxing drivers based on miles driven will be addressing how motorists’ privacy can be protected and how the government is going to use the information.

“In terms of privacy, it shouldn’t matter where you drive,” said Erin Lambrose, 23, who commutes daily from West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale. “It shouldn’t be of any concern to the government where we’re driving.”,0,1159071.story

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