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Published: Saturday, 4/8/2006

Business lobbyist advocates a mileage tax

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Taxing drivers based on miles driven could be a fairer way of paying for highway maintenance and construction than the current system, which is based on fuel taxes, an executive with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said yesterday at a Toledo gathering.

"If people feel like all the users are paying their share, they may be willing to pay more up front," said Edward Mortimer, director of the national chamber's transportation infrastructure congressional and public affairs division. He spoke at a breakfast meeting of the Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Unlike gasoline taxes, which lose value to inflation, a mileage tax would measure highway use directly from transponders on vehicles, Mr. Mortimer said.

He offered the public policy opinion in light of a sobering chamber-sponsored study that calculated highway maintenance will fall behind by $500 billion over the next 10 years, under the current taxing system.

But to gain widespread support, the vehicle-miles tax will have to overcome skeptics such as Ed Nagle. The Lake Township trucking company owner told the Eggs and Issues gathering at the Toledo Hilton that his industry is already double-taxed when it uses the Ohio Turnpike. He also questioned whether government could spend more tax dollars efficiently.

"Not only do we already pay a tax for every mile we drive, on the turnpike we have to pay a toll," he said.

"The turnpike has a group of people who just want to protect their fiefdom."

After calling the vehicle-miles tax "wrong" in front of the audience, Mr. Nagle said afterward that it probably would be "a good idea" if implemented as Mr. Mortimer described.

"But I don't trust the government," he said.

Mr. Mortimer said accountability for the use of tax funds is vital.

But many transportation projects are so big that it's unreasonable to expect the private sector to undertake them. And congressmen routinely insert "pork barrel" projects in transportation spending bills.

Maggie Thurber, a Lucas County commissioner, said the national chamber should take a much stronger stand against pork projects than it has in the past.

Mr. Mortimer predicted it would. The group is promoting the vehicle-miles tax now, he said. The discussion needs to start right away, he said, if the proposal is to become part of the debate when the federal highway program next comes up for renewal in 2009.

Adjusted for inflation, the value of motor fuel taxes is lower today than it was in 1956. That year, President Eisenhower persuaded the American public to accept a four-cent gasoline tax to pay for the new national highway system, Mr. Mortimer said.

China and India now spend about twice as much on their transportation networks as the United States does, which is boosting their efficiency at the same time as congestion and decay are making this country less efficient, he said.

Making sure the system is truly fair and overcoming resistance to the notion of tracking vehicle movement will be a challenge, he said.

"Nobody likes to think that everything they do is being watched," Mr. Mortimer said.

Asked if the chamber's study had considered toll roads as an alternative, Mr. Mortimer said the transponder system would work like a high-tech toll.

"We just don't want to have tollbooths where people are waiting in line," the chamber official said.

Contact David Patch at:

dpatch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6094.



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