Despite the backlash, Pete Buttigieg’s idea to tax drivers by the mile to help pay for infrastructure is actually a step in the right direction

Pete Buttigieg
Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg at a press conference in February. John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images
  • The gas tax can no longer be relied upon to pay for building and maintaining the nation’s transportation infrastructure.
  • The easiest way to make sure we have more resources to spend on transportation priorities is to stop wasting money on unnecessary highway boondoggle projects.
  • We should also pursue new ways to finance transportation infrastructure that cover the true costs of driving and generate revenue for healthier, cleaner options of public transit.
  • John Stout is a transportation advocate for US Public Interest Research Group (PIRG).
  • Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst at Frontier Group.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the authors.
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A century ago, Oregon adopted the first state gas tax, later dedicating the proceeds to building out the state’s road network. Within a decade, every other state in the country followed.

Since then, many Americans have been under the impression that the money they pay in gas taxes, registration, and other vehicle-related fees is enough to cover the costs of building and maintaining the millions of miles of roads they use.

Today, however, revenue from highway users covers only a little more than half the cost of building and maintaining the nation’s roads. Most of the rest of the money comes from general tax revenue that you and I pay regardless of how much we drive or whether we even own a car.

America’s transportation funding challenges are expected to get worse. The rise of hybrid and fully electric vehicles mean that, as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg recently said, the gas tax “can’t be the answer forever because we’re going to be using less and less gas.”

On March 26, Buttigieg floated a possible solution to the funding crisis: a tax on vehicle-miles traveled, or “VMT.” Under a VMT tax system, Americans would pay a per-mile fee based on their use of the road network, potentially supplanting the gas tax. Buttigieg later walked back his proposal, but it does have some merit. If well-designed, a VMT tax could ensure that those who use the road network pay a greater share of its costs, and potentially bring in more revenue to finance what Secretary Buttigieg has called a “generational investment” in infrastructure.

But if we really want to build a transportation network worthy of the 21st century, we can’t stop at pumping new money into the same old system. We need a bold new vision for how we raise transportation dollars and how we spend them.

The road less traveled

The easiest way to make sure we have more resources to spend on necessary investments, like road repair and efficient public transit, is to stop wasting money on unnecessary highway boondoggle projects.

Year after year, state and local governments propose tens of billions of dollars worth of new and expanded highway projects, which impose social and environmental costs, while touted benefits, such as reduced congestion, often fail to materialize.

These projects also take away resources from the kinds of transportation projects that are most valuable to people in our communities: fixing local streets, improving public transit networks, and installing better safety infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists. And they take us in the wrong direction when it comes to cleaning up our air and fighting climate change.

But let’s face it, simply ending spending on wasteful highway boondoggles isn’t going to be enough to meet our growing needs for infrastructure repair and sustainable transportation. And when it comes to raising that revenue, the federal government might want to look for guidance from the northeastern states, which are considering using carbon pricing to pay for the big job of building the clean, climate-friendly transportation system of the future.

The landmark Transportation and Climate Initiative, a regional program aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation across the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, will raise revenue by requiring large gasoline and diesel fuel suppliers to purchase “allowances” for the pollution caused by fuels they sell in the region. Similar carbon pricing programs across the United States could bring in more revenue and ensure that the cost of climate pollution is priced into every mile we drive. Other revenue sources directly tied to driving impacts – from congestion pricing to tolling to parking taxes – are also worth considering.

The problem with transportation goes far beyond our crumbling roads and bridges. America’s car-centered transportation system is wreaking havoc on our health, leaving many of us sick, unhappy, or worse. From rising traffic-related fatalities to the increasing toll of air pollution on our health, the stakes of our failed approach to transportation spending have become a matter of life and death.

By introducing the idea of a VMT tax, Secretary Buttigieg has helped to spark a new conversation about how to pay for transportation in America. The transportation funding system that worked to pave the nation’s roads in the 20th century needs to be adapted to take on the very different challenges of today. As Congress considers how to move forward with large-scale infrastructure legislation, let’s hope that’s just the first of many bold new ideas for transportation.

John Stout is a transportation advocate for US Public Interest Research Group (PIRG). Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst at Frontier Group.