As we turn to more electric, hybrid, and hydrogen cars, our driving habits are slowly becoming eco-friendlier. But eco-friendly is not necessarily economy-friendly.
Highway projects and road repair are funded by a federal gas tax, which has stood at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993. (States and counties add their own separate taxes.) But this tax has been raising less revenue in recent years.
"As vehicles become more fuel-efficient, the money raised by the gas tax goes down," said Jon Kuhl, a University of Iowa professor of electrical and computer engineering. (AP) "When cars don't go to gas pumps anymore, the gas tax is not going to be a sufficient way to raise money for the Highway Trust Fund."
In fact, the Fund went broke last year, and officials predict it will fall $8 billion short of its projected need this year. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has ruled out raising gas taxes to make up for the funding shortfall.
The National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission, created by Congress, may have come up with an alternative: a mileage-based tax.
"This is a very sensible and arguably very effective way to price the use of the road system," said Joseph Schofer, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University, reports the Sun-Times.
The University of Iowa is performing a study to see if taxing motorists by mile could effectively replace the gas tax. Chicago is one of six cities nationwide in which volunteers' mileage will be tracked by a small, on-board computer system. After 10 months, participants will be sent fake invoices, exhibiting how much they would pay in mileage tax versus gas tax.
While thousands of people have signed up for the study in each city (including Billings, Montana; Miami, Florida; Portland, Maine; Wichita, Kansas; and Albuquerque, New Mexico), motorists are still welcome to sign up. The study will choose 250 participants of different ethnic groups and incomes.
Chicagoans who are interested in participating must have a valid driver's license, be at least 18 years old, own a car (year 2000 or newer), attend a 1.5-hour training session, and reside in the area (Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, and Will Counties) for at least 10 months. Full details can be found at RoadUserStudy.org. The total compensation for completing all study requirements is $895.
The study doesn't just collect information about mileage though; it also studies the driver. Researchers want to know how drivers feel about an on-board computer tracking their movements.
"There is a real concern on the part of many in the public that this is the ultimate of Big Brother watching and knowing where you are," said Kansas Transportation Secretary Deb Miller.
Kuhl, the principal investigator on the study, says that the computer would know what state the person is driving in and can change tax rates accordingly. However, he explains that the device would only track "raw" mileage, not keeping track of exactly when or where those miles were traveled.
Aside from privacy concerns, other obstacles include the cost of installing computers into every car and the position of the current administration. The White House has already rejected a mileage-based tax but has not offered an alternative plan.
"It's a complicated issue, and there are a lot of issues that need to be worked out," said Miller.
Kuhl conducted a similar study last year, and the results from both 2008 and 2009 will be revealed in September 2010.
Matt Bartosik, editor of Off the Rocks' next issue, often goes the extra mile... but not often on purpose.