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Racking up miles? Maybe not.
"As vehicles become more fuel-efficient, revenue from gas taxes falls," said a Brookings Institution report co-authored by Alice M. Rivlin, former director of the Congressional Budget Office. "A more sustainable solution . . . is road-use pricing."
Hybrids coming on the market soon are expected to get more than 100 mpg, and even-lighter vehicles in the near future may reach more than 200 mpg. And the plug-in Chevy Volt, expected in showrooms later this year, can go 40 miles on batteries alone. Why 40 miles? Because two-thirds of Americans drive less than that distance each day. For plug-in drivers, daily gasoline consumption will drop to zero.
By one estimate, cited in a Federal Highway Administration report, hybrids may account for 30 percent of the new cars sold within two years, and they are projected to make up 75 percent of the market by 2025.
If half of America switches from a 20-mpg car to a 50- to 100-mpg car in the next 20 years, much of the tax revenue now used to build and rebuild highways will evaporate.
The most immediate solution to the prospect of declining revenue is to increase gas taxes, but legislators need look no further than last year for evidence that when gas prices rise, people drive less. They're also more motivated to trade sport-utility vehicles for smaller, fuel-efficient cars.
A study in Texas determined that the state might need an eightfold increase in its fuel tax to keep up, and another estimate projected that the state will face a $146 billion shortfall in 20 years unless it finds a fresh source of revenue.
A congressional commission concluded last year that the Highway Trust Fund, into which federal gas taxes flow, "faces a near-term insolvency crisis, exacerbated by recent reduction in federal motor fuel tax revenues." After considering more than two dozen revenue options, including higher fuel and tire taxes, a federal vehicle sales tax, a driver's license surcharge and a general federal sales tax, the commission recommended that the nation transition from a fuel-tax-based revenue system to one "measured by miles driven."
The dramatic need to revitalize the Highway Trust Fund comes as many of the roads built during the suburban boom years four and five decades ago cry out for major overhaul. Five years ago, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimated that $222 billion a year was needed to maintain the surface transportation system and that annual funding was falling about $45 billion short of that amount.
'We have the technology'
If the confluence of plummeting revenue, good roads going bad and traffic gridlock resembles the perfect storm, technology may provide an escape route.
The wizardry to switch the highway funding formula from a per-gallon tax to a per-mile tax exists.
A new device linking the technology of a cellphone with a global positioning system unit and a car's on-board computer could be deployed within a few years, experts say.
The first big hurdle that advocates of the transition will face is selling the American public on the belief that a per-mile levy is a replacement for the tax on gasoline rather than a new tax burden.