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Mr. LaHood's Good Idea

The transportation chief's mileage tax shouldn't be a nonstarter.

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Monday, February 23, 2009; Page A18

TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY Ray LaHood told a reporter Friday that he was considering a tax on vehicle miles traveled as an alternative to the gas tax. Faster than you could say "smack-down," press secretary Robert Gibbs unleashed a White House scolding. Mr. Gibbs said, "I can weigh in on it and say that it is not and will not be the policy of the Obama administration."

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Too bad. You'd think this young administration would be encouraging an open exchange of innovative ideas.

As automobiles become more efficient and make use of new fuels, the gas tax -- which, we note here for the umpteenth time, should be raised -- will be less effective in capturing revenue. Mr. LaHood's comments reflected what many transportation experts and economists are coming to believe: A tax on vehicle miles traveled, or VMTs, is the most promising, fairest, most environmentally responsible replacement for the gas tax.

There are, of course, serious kinks to work out. Charging drivers for the miles they travel isn't as easy as tacking a few pennies onto your bill at the gas station. But a pilot program in Oregon proved the feasibility of the idea. Twenty-two percent of 300 participants drove less during peak hours. Most drivers said they thought the rates were reasonable; nine out of 10 said they preferred a mileage tax to a gas tax.

Most proposals require a GPS-like "mileage-counter" to be installed in vehicles. When drivers stop to fill up, a tax based on the miles they've driven would be added to their bill in place of a gas tax. The tax rate could be adjusted based on whether someone was driving in rush hour or off-peak times, on clogged freeways or less busy roads.

What, then, prevents the proposal from being taken more seriously? Some opponents fear that the government could use the mileage counters to monitor drivers. There's also criticism that the tax would unfairly burden less affluent motorists.

These obstacles are significant, but they are not impossible to overcome. Already, there is evidence that time is running out for the gas tax. Last year, the Highway Trust Fund, which helps pay for roads, flirted with insolvency until Congress shoveled $8 billion into it. The next time the fund runs short -- which could happen as early as this fall -- we hope the mere suggestion of a VMT tax doesn't earn an automatic rebuke from Mr. Gibbs.

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