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Virginia Shies Away From Vehicle Miles Traveled Tax

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Virginia is examining funding options for transportation infrastructure, but there isn't much momentum for a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax.
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Virginia is examining funding options for transportation infrastructure, but there isn't much momentum for a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax.

Key votes are expected this week in the Virginia General Assembly on Governor Bob McDonnell's transportation funding plan that would replace the state gas tax with a higher sales tax. Another transportation tax, known as the vehicles miles traveled tax, will not be on the table, however.

Not a single state in the country charges a VMT, but there are efforts to establish the tax, which tracks all the miles drivers travel in their cars and charges them fees based on the distances.

At a time when federal and state governments are struggling to adequately fund the maintenance, operation and construction of transportation projects, a VMT tax has the potential to increase revenues and directly allocate them to the most heavily traveled road networks, says Rob Puentes, a transportation policy expert at the Brookings Institution.

"If you are driving on the Beltway during rush hour consistently adding to the traffic on those highly congested roads, you'd be paying more, and then those revenues would go back to the road you are using," says Puentes. VMT taxes would mark a fundamental change, which is why several obstacles stand in its way.

"The technology is generally there but there are an awful lot of political, institutional, and general public policy concerns that we still have to deal with," Puentes says.

The biggest concern may be privacy. Eighty-six percent of area commuters would oppose having a GPS device installed in their car to track their miles, according to a study by the Council of Governments Transportation Planning Board released last week.

"There are lot of measures that can be put in place to insure that personal information is not being used or exploited, but you really have to do a good job of convincing the motoring public that privacy concerns are going to be dealt with in a very clear way," Puentes said.

Politically, few politicians have shown the willingness to try to convince drivers of the merits of VMT. Oregon, which is generally considered to be the state that's pioneering most of the research and the policy analysis around the miles-traveled concept, is doing so because a state law required lawmakers to consider it, Puentes says.

Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer is pushing a bill in the U.S. House that would require the U.S. Treasury Department to study VMT. Because the tax involves interstate commerce, federal legislation would likely be necessary, Puentes says.

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