California Could Start Requiring Drivers to Report VMT

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When USDOT Secretary Ray LaHood last month suggested that the country should consider replacing the gas tax with a tax on vehicle miles traveled (VMT) to compensate for the dwindling Highway Trust Fund, which is primarily supported from gas taxes, the White House immediately rebuffed him, assuring the public and angry editorial boards that Obama had no such priority.  With a sluggish economy and greater fuel efficiency in new vehicles, a VMT tax would replenish the Highway Trust, though it would also allow planners and policy makers to develop solutions for reducing greenhouse gas emissions through better land use policies.

Several states, including Oregon, Washington, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Texas are studying the feasibility of the transition and what infrastructure and technology would be needed to plan for a VMT tax.  In 2001, Oregon DOT (ODOT) launched a study called the the Oregon Mileage Fee Concept (PDF), and in April of 2006, ODOT tested GPS systems in vehicles belonging to several hundred volunteers.  Based on those findings, Oregon governor Theodore R. Kulongoski this year called for outfitting every Oregon vehicle with a GPS device that would assess a tax at the pump based on how many miles had been driven, regardless of the fuel efficiency of the vehicle.

In California last month, Assembly member Nancy Skinner of Alameda and Contra Costa counties introduced AB 1135, which would require every motorist to report their odometer reading when they register or renew their vehicle.  The state DMV would provide overall VMT data publicly. It would theoretically be available through fairly specific tracts to aid planning, though whether it would be by block face, census tract, voter district, or county has yet to be determined.

As the bill points out, accurate VMT data is essential not only for immediate compliance with the greenhouse gas reductions mandated in AB 32, but also for smarter regional planning and the reduction of sprawl mandated in SB 375: 

More accurate data about vehicle-miles-traveled–the mileage driven annually by Californians–would provide essential information to guide local transportation and land use planning. Location of transit corridor improvements, light rail, bicycle paths, and high-occupancy freeway lanes now depend on the estimates done by various state agencies, but all of these projects would benefit from more accurate data. Better data would also provide more consistent local and statewide estimates for transportation planning, city planning, and air quality planning efforts. The data would be essential in establishing long-term, historical trends in vehicle use, traffic congestion, energy consumption, and air quality measures, including ozone precursor pollutants and greenhouse gases.

Picture_4.pngThis ABAG graph from a Joint Policy Committee presentation shows steady rise of VMT

One criticism of moving to a VMT tax from a gas tax is that the person
who purchased a more fuel efficient vehicle shouldn’t have to pay the same as
the person who still drives a big SUV.  By that logic, if a consumer
wants to drive a vehicle that pollutes more, they need to pay more at the pump.

Carli Paine, TransForm’s Transportation Program Director, said that line of reasoning was flawed. "Even people who drive highly economical vehicles
have an impact on the roadways and ought to pay their share for upkeep.
A Prius contributes to traffic congestion just like a Mustang, but is
paying less into the account that addresses congestion and roadway wear
and tear."

Paine argued that odometer reporting would likely not be the final method used for monitoring VMT, but that the bill would allow planners to set targets to promote transit-oriented development (TOD) and smart growth.  She said that living in close proximity to one’s place of work cuts down on emissions and fuel consumption better than any vehicle technology can.

"It’s hard to see how
we can be serious about setting regional targets for reducing driving,
without knowing how much driving is really taking place.  This bill would provide a significant boost to our efforts to curb
global warming pollution associated with driving and land use."

Paine suggested that a Hummer driver living within a short distance of work would use less gas than a Prius driver who commuted 120 miles each way, as illustrated in this graph:

Picture_3.pngABAG graph showing the difference in gas consumption by commute distance and vehicle type

Another criticism of altering the gas tax to a VMT tax centers on the concern that government would know too much about individual driving patterns if every vehicle had GPS or other tracking technology.  Those critics have complained that placing GPS in vehicles to collect VMT data, or even self-reporting of odometer information, would violate privacy rights, though AB 1135 explicitly states that personal information would not be public record.

In a recent Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) meeting, several commissioners brought up privacy concerns.  MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger explained that a good deal of information is already collected through routine smog checks, self-reporting to insurance companies, and Fast Trak and Translink monitoring, etc.

MTC spokesperson Randy Rentschler said at the same meeting that "to some extent, this is an imposition on motorists, but we have to get a good sense of how many vehicle miles traveled we have… as [transportation] is the biggest source of CO2 in the state.  FasTrak and Translink have privacy issues, but those databases exist.  When we are given subpoenas by the police, that’s the only time that we will release private data."

MTC Commissioner and Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates said: "The privacy issue is important, but the information is necessary and needed to plan and make future decisions.  I think this is an important bill because we need to get VMT and the methods that we use now are so complicated and arcane.  We make assumptions about the impacts of TOD; now we could actually start verifying these things."

The MTC Commission endorsed the legislation at their March meeting. Commissioners Spring and Worth were the only two members who voted against it, citing privacy concerns.  Scuttlebut in the hall suggested they understood this was the first step toward a VMT tax and they were positioning themselves against the bill to please their suburban driving constituents. 

  • Peter

    VMT, BRT — if it has an acronym, and it doesn’t make any sense on any level whatsoever, then i guess it must be a great idea because there always seems to be some folks lining up to support it.

    we really don’t need to spy on people to know how much they’re driving. as mentioned, there’s plenty enough spying we do on people already. that is not an argument for more spying — it’s an argument for less spying.

    we need to institute a gradual state gas tax increase over 10 years to get it to where it was 20 years ago and then go at least 100% past that. and it needs to be adjusted yearly for inflation, of course. the federales need to do the same.

    it’s not going to be politically-popular to do it, but you can make it gradual, so people have time to shift where they live, work, and play. they can get more fuel-efficient cars. start lobbying for real transit. start riding a bike. etc. the gas tax is effectively falling every single year right now due to inflation — we need to stop that decline and then reverse it. enough people will support a smart tax if phased in slowly. it has to be couched in terms of ‘inevitability’, of course.

    most VMT proponents, imo, are just like BRT proponents — on the surface they’ll claim to be supporting green/hippie causes, but the true aim is insidious — to kill revenue funding for transit by removing our ability to tax (VMT), and kill any possibility of real transit (BRT).

    i expect it’ll only be a matter of days before EMBARQ, World Resources Institute (WRI/Shell), Hoover Institute, Manhattan Institute, Cato, Heritage Foundation, Wall Street Journal, WorldChanging, CityFix, and others jump on the VMT bandwagon.

    fun times.

  • Peter, the gas tax will become obsolete when plug-in hybrids become popular. I am not promoting plug-in hybrids, but I think their use is inevitable as gas prices go up. Your gradual gas tax increase over ten years would probably be obsolete before the ten years ended.

  • “in April of 2006, ODOT tested GPS systems in vehicles belonging to several hundred volunteers. Based on those findings, Oregon governor Theodore R. Kulongoski this year called for outfitting every Oregon vehicle with a GPS device that would assess a tax at the pump based on how many miles had been driven, regardless of the fuel efficiency of the vehicle.”

    A GPS-based VMT tax has a huge advantage over just reporting odometer readings: it can be combined with toll-everywhere congestion pricing, to charge people more when they drive on more congested freeways. This could virtually eliminate congestion, and so it could eliminate much of the political pressure for freeway widening.

  • The congressional National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission measured each revenue option against five criteria:
    • Will the future revenue stream be sustainable
    • Is it fair across geographic regions and income groups
    • Does it promote efficiency
    • Is it politically viable and is implementation easy and affordable
    • Is it applicable to federal, state and local governments

    Despite scoring higher than all other options, the VMT falls short on three key criteria in comparison to efficient vehicle assessment (EVA) a per-gallon tax based on make, model, year, weight of vehicle, captured at the pump by scanning a windshield decal containing existing VIN info. VMT vs. EVA on Commission key criteria:

    Is it fair across geographic and income groups?
    Because the VMT bases the tax on miles driven, it is inherently unfair to rural drivers and long-distance commuters.. EVA, on the other hand, is based on vehicle make and model. It doesn’t penalize drivers who necessarily have longer trips.

    Does it promote efficiency?
    VMT doesn’t discourage the use of gas-guzzlers or encourage the use of efficient vehicles. Do we really want a rural driver of a Ford Escort to pay a higher tax per gallon than the suburban Hummer driver going 3 miles to the mall? EVA, on the other hand, would assess the Escort at a lower per-gallon rate than the Hummer.

    Is it politically viable and easy/affordable to implement?
    Passing a tax that is unfair to rural drivers and long-distance commuters and disappoints environmentalists and privacy advocates won’t be easy. EVA, by comparison, encourages fuel efficiency, doesn’t violate privacy, and treats all drivers –rural and suburban – fairly.
    And cost? VMT requires retrofitting all vehicles with GPS tracking- or odometer-reading equipment. EVA requires just a bar-coded VIN decal on the windshield, easily distributed by existing motor vehicle offices. EVA could even be an opt-in program with non-participating drivers paying the maximum tax and all enrolled vehicles – even that Hummer – paying less, with hybrids and motorcycles paying the least.

  • If you want more info on EVA, let me know via email at eva@corecomputergroup.com

  • One other thing…if anyone has any thoughts about how to get CA officials to at least look at this option, feel free to let me know. Astonishingly, EVA hasn’t even been considered, even though it is such an obvious alternative. eva@corecomputergroup.com

  • m

    peter –
    that’s absolute rubbish.
    Regardless of what happens with the gas tax, the reality is that as cars get more fuel efficient (and some stop using gasoline altogether), they are still going to be out there tearing up the roads and using a crap load of land and resources to support in an unsustainable manner. We have to look beyond the gasoline system; just talking about raising the gas tax is not going to cut it, even if it were politically a cake-walk. Priuses and hybrids and plug-ins and all that nonsense are not solutions to our problems. A plug-in car may use no gas, but it uses electricity and electricity has to be generated somehow, and there ain’t never going to be enough solar panels and wind turbines to power all those cars driving all those miles. And a Prius or a Chevy Volt or whatever takes up just as much land and causes just as much sprawl as a Jeep Cherokee. Unless you can get to a system which penalizes people for driving more miles AND using more resources (ALL resources, not just gasoline), it’s a half-baked solution.

  • m

    Kevin –
    Just like the gas tax, the EVA is still based on drivers pulling up to a gasoline pump to pump gasoline. It’s just as dead-end and obsolete as a dumb ‘ol gas tax. It’s essentially just a smarter gas tax. It’s a solution that should’ve come 20 years ago. It’s not a post-gasoline solution. You have to be able to tax/assess drivers who are also plugging in their cars in their garages. You HAVE to penalize people who drive long distances — that’s the whole freaking point!!! As long as it’s cheap to drive long distances on a regular basis, people will keep doing it and sprawl will keep sprawling until the last subdivision fills the last track of undeveloped land and rubs up against the boundaries of the national parks and there’s nothing left.

  • I understand your point about mileage, but mileage disincentive is built in to any per-gallon tax. The more you drive, the more it costs. So a VMT is not the anti-mileage tool that it may seem. And I agree that EVA is not a post-gasoline solution. But look at the most aggressive forecasts of new tech replacing current combustion engines…”post-gasoline” doesn’t arrive for several years. In the meantime we have to use best incentives to encourage drivers switching to more efficient vehicles-to hybrids-to-electric (or whatever).
    Can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, M.
    (By the way, the longer-distance drivers are the rural drivers …and the commuters who can’t afford the pricier homes near cities (and therefore have to travel further for work). VMT is regressive in that regard.)

  • Kevin: Note that a VMT tax is more fair to rural drivers if it includes congestion pricing. Rural drivers are in areas where there is less congestion, so they would pay less.

    The VMT tax does charge more to commuters who travel longer distances, but that is exactly what we need to shorten commute distances and discourage sprawl. When you say your proposal is “fair” to these people, you are saying that it encourages sprawl and is not sustainable in the long run.

    Note that any tax based on gasoline will become unfair relatively quickly, since more affluent people are the ones who can afford plug-in hybrids. When the wealthy 5% or 10% buy plug-in hybrids, any gas-based tax will be unfair to everyone else. Note that, in addition to paying no gas tax, those people will be powering their cars with electricity that is priced at less than the market price (since electricity prices are controlled).

    We don’t extra incentives to convince people to buy hybrids and plug-in hybrids. High gas prices will do it soon enough. Before the current crash, gas prices were already high enough to more than pay back the extra cost of a plug-in hybrid, and when the economy recovers, gas prices will go right back up again.

  • While I agree agree discouraging sprawl is an important goal, I do not believe the a mileage tax or, frankly, any other vehicle-related tax (including VMT) will have any significant impact on sprawl, at least not in the near term (20 years). Massive sociological, economic and demographic levers far greater than fuel tax will be needed to even limit urban sprawl, let alone reverse it.

    The long-distance commuters usually don’t make long drives by choice…it is, afterall, not a particularly happy experience. More often it is because they cannot afford the more expensive homes nearer the cities and that there is insufficient mass transportation available to them. It will be regressive. (The gap between rural and metropolitan per-capita income is well-documented. And if adjusted to estimate the driving population of each area it is more pronounced (as the metropolitan p/c income average goes up dramatically if you take inner city/urban poor out of the equation.)

    VMT will lull us into thinking we’re doing something that we’re not while hitting the less affluent harder. And VMT comes with serious other baggage: The privacy issue (VMT= “Track ‘n Tax”) is very troubling and VMT makes no distinction between the gas guzzler and the comparatively efficient vehicle. EVA does not have that baggage.

    The price differential between hybrids and conventional vehicles will narrow quickly as the supply/demand calculus evolves. And EVA will encourage that change whereas VMT will not.

    Finally, there are practical implications here …one of the 5 criteria the commission used is the question of its political and practical viability. With rural citizens and privacy advocates opposed, and with the large task of retrofitting all vehicles with GPS or odometer-scanning devices, VMT is just not an easy “do”. EVA, however, requires each vehicle have a bar-coded windshield VIN decal. It could even be an opt-in program. Non-participating vehicles all pay the maximum per-gallon rate. Enrolled vehicles get the discounted rate (Hummers at the top, Vespas/motorbikes/hybrids, etc. at the bottom of the scale). This alone would speed implementation.

    And while I agree that over time any gas tax becomes obsolete it is still going to be the primary source for years. That’s not a good thing, but it is the case, even according to the most sympathetic forecasts. And EVA, a tax that encourages fuel efficient vehicles for short and long trips and penalizes SUV’s etc. will hasten the decline of gasoline.

  • Arch

    Let’s be truly honest, Sacramento has no altruistic motive for a VMT. They only want another revenue stream to spend money on various projects. Revenue from the gas tax has been consistently robbed for other purposes than to maintain our roadways, no one should believe revenue from a VMT will be treated any differently and thus our roadways improved. Also, know the expected revenue based on previously driven miles will not be realized because people will do all they can to avoid driven miles, which will be applauded by some be the economic impact on many other industries will be tremendous because people won’t go there to spend their money. Certainly public transporation is not going to fill in the gap. Our economic structure is based on easy access from anywhere in a region; the VMT will ultimately shrink that economic structure to what I will term as “village economies” rather than regional economies such as Southern California. VMT is an ill conceived idea in total, but if their goal remains a new revenue stream Sacramento will pass it without voter approval.

  • Regular

    Can’t this already be done with phones?

  • Kevin: You are missing my main point that a VMT tax can be combined with congestion pricing to eliminate or reduce congestion throughout metropolitan areas. That would dramatically reduce political pressure for more freeway widenings, and that is a major step to fighting sprawl.

    Yes, we do need to do more than this to fight sprawl. Most obviously, we need to change the region’s zoning to stop sprawl development and concentrate development around transit. But it is harder to get that zoning if we have tax policies that support sprawl and that create more political pressure for freeway widening.

    The fact is that we will have to shift from a gas tax to a vmt tax as plug-in hybrids come on line. We should use that shift as an opportunity to create a vmt tax that includes congestion pricing – which would help end freeway widenings and sprawl.

  • Saying that this bill is a precursor to a VMT fee is very destructive to this bill’s chances of success. The bill is simply aimed at getting information. Those who have studied this topic – such as the State of Oregon – have clearly determined that a VMT fee would need to be collected on a regular basis – probably at the time of vehicle re-fueling and would rely on advanced technololgy, not self-reported odometer readings once a year.

  • JasonH

    To bring in a different point: Skinner’s odometer tracking bill is by no means necessarily “setting the stage for a VMT tax.” Tracking VMT is crucial for smart transportation and land use planning, and for meeting AB32 and SB375 goals. VMT can be analyzed at the census block level, and can be reported by each driver on their registration form. This need not, in any way, be a basis for a VMT tax. Reporting it this way helps kill what, at this point, is merely a bill to aid good planning.

    But if there were a VMT tax, there is simply no need to require an intrusive GPS device. As we’ve never done it before, there is no evidence that people are incapable, or unwilling, to provide accurate odo data on their vehicle registration form. Presuming fraud or incompetence is unfounded and leads to this ridiculous GPS requirement. Be clear: a GPS requirement will kill this bill, and the whole concept of a VMT tax, dead. End of story.

  • Thanks for the clarification JasonH in #16. I’ve edited the title to reflect this.

    -Matthew Roth

  • MDWhite

    Carli Paine, TransForm’s Transportation Policy Director, said that line of reasoning was flawed. “Even people who drive highly economical vehicles have an impact on the roadways and ought to pay their share for upkeep. A Prius contributes to traffic congestion just like a Mustang, but is paying less into the account that addresses congestion and roadway wear and tear.” Really…and who died and made you God, Carli? I pay my fair share of taxes and the fact that the state has frittered billions away on programs and “services” that are of no account and benefit only a select few isn’t my fault. I shouldn’t be penalized for Sacramento not being able to find its own rear end with both hands. Where I drive, what I drive and how many miles I drive are none of anyone’s business. period.

  • Charles, I understand the congestion pricing concept and how it may mitigate the impact of VMT on rural drivers, although I am skeptical it will be practical. Do you not agree, though, that given the opposition of privacy advocates, skeptical rural folks and those in favor of lower rates for more efficient vehicles, and the comparative complexity and cost of implementing VMT, makes moot the whole issue of congestion pricing? The White House has dismissed a federal VMT out of hand. Congestion aside, it simply has too many other flaws.

    (By the way, how would motorcycles be treated in the VMT plan? Does the rural motorcycle in Napa Valley pay more per mile than the SUV that drives less? Add the biker lobby to the anti-VMT list.)

  • m

    why do we give a rat’s ass what kind of vehicles people drive instead of how much they drive and how much resources they consume? Carli Paine is right — it’s far better and more sustainable in all respects for the average person to drive a Hummer 10 miles a day than it is to drive a Prius 100 miles a day. We need to reduce resource usage in an absolute sense. Who cares if you’re being more efficient on a per mile basis? It’s not only totally irrelevant, it’s more destructive because more resources are being gobbled up in the aggregate.

    And this BS about people commuting to the Bay Area from the Central Valley not by choice — if they didn’t want to buy a detached 2,000 sf house with a yard, they could find plenty of places, particularly now that the bubble has burst. The suburban dream is a dead one, my friends. People think the same kind of house their parents bought 30 years ago is going to be what they should be able to buy. Sorry. Until the population starts flatlining or declining, the ability to purchase an affordable parcel of land with a single family house and a big garage in a neighborhood close to job center in the city is as extinct as the dinosaurs. It’s never going to happen again.

  • ben

    The government has no problems raising the cigg tax to pay for children’s health care, yet it hasn’t raised the gas tax since 1992.

    To further illustrate the problems the mpg standards went down over the last 20 years. Why well gas tax is dependent on more miles and more consumption.

    In NYC they can’t even toll the 30 percent of the people using bridges to help pay for the people using Mass transit. They just got some more millions from U.S. to pay for the bridge upkeep.

    VMT is good for everyone.
    EDR s will be in place 2012 hopefully if you commit a crime while killing someone you will go to jail then.

  • m,

    1. If a Hummer gets 8 MPG and drives 8 miles a day it consumes a gallon of gasoline. gallons of gasoline. A hybrid getting 40 MPG could driving 20 miles per day would only consume a half gallon. I’ll leave the debate on road wear-and-tear alone other than to note that vehicle weight matters a lot. And go ahead…charge the new hybrid Vespas (170 MPG) more per gallon than that Hummer.
    A much more direct solution to reducing traffic into the city is a toll. Slap a toll on all the incoming highways from all directions. Shut down non-resident parking options.

    But don’t assume that reducing city congestion is the only worthy societal goal. Discouraging gas guzzlers and preserving privacy are worthy, too. And those advocates are natural allies of the anti-congestion movement. Rail all you want about that stereo-typical suburbanite. But this gas tax matter is about more than just San Francisco. It is a statewide (and even national) issue. In that light, the VMT is a needlessy antagonistic and divisive approach. Do you really think isolating the San Francisco movement from all other natural allies is smart? And wish all you want that a perhaps desirable goal of eliminating suburban living is a short-term possibility. But don’t mistake the satisfaction of venting about it for real progress toward the goal. These are huge socio-economic/demograhic issues here. Build alliances, identify the necessary interim steps to make progress…

  • This is NOT a VMT Fee bill. Best not to even use the abbreviation here – it’s a way to track carbon emission in the transportation sector, replacing a lousy, ineffective modeling system used now by MPOs.

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