Get ready for pay-as-you-go driving. It’s likely to become law after Congress passed the Federal Mileage Tax Act of 2011 Tuesday. President Obama, citing concern over automobiles’ environmental impact and deteriorating infrastructure nationwide, has indicated he will sign the FMTA into law.
“The president believes this is the best way to fix our aging infrastructure,” said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. “Rather than find more efficient uses of the money the government currently has, or respect federalist principles and allow states to maintain their roads, we prefer a new law and a new tax.”
Motorists will be required to have a GPS system installed in their vehicles to monitor and record miles driven. Newer vehicles will include the system as a standard item, while older cars must have it put in by the end of the year.
The system will feed mileage data into the newly created National Highway Data Center, which will store and maintain the records. The NHDC will be responsible for using the mileage information to calculate an annual tax.
Civil libertarians have expressed concerns over the GPS system. They point out that the specific device to be installed – known as the Transportation Electronic Recording Device System, or TERDS – has capabilities which can threaten motorists’ privacy.
“The device the government wants to install on vehicles does more than record miles,” said Cliff Young of the Privacy Awareness Institute. “It can also override on-board GPS systems, block cell phone signals, and tap into national databases containing information on individual drivers. It’s an electronic Trojan horse.”
But to Young, the most troubling aspect of TERDS is that it comes with a small fiber optic camera installed on the automobile dashboard. It also renders the vehicle inoperative unless the driver recites a loyalty oath each time the car is started.
When asked about the camera and oath, Gibbs said it had nothing to do with privacy.
“This is about preventing fraud. The camera is there to make sure that drivers don’t drive their cars backward to lower their odometers,” he said. “And the loyalty oath is simply an affirmation on the driver’s part that he won’t try to do that.” Gibbs declined to elaborate on the exact wording of the oath, saying it will be up to the NHDC to write.
Environmentalists have expressed support for the legislation, noting that the device could be programmed to tax heavier, less fuel-efficient vehicles more. TERDS can monitor a vehicle’s so-called carbon footprint and adjust the tax rate accordingly.
TERDS is also programmed so that if the carbon footprint is too high, the vehicles will explode. While favoring the idea of destroying less fuel efficient vehicles in this way, some environmentalists expressed concern that smoke from the explosion would add more pollution into the atmosphere.
“The danger of allowing these devices to detonate the polluting vehicle is obviously to the planet,” said Wally Belmont of the Earth Resource and Activist Network. “However, they will ultimately destroy the earth less than would the continuing operation of SUVs and other death mobiles.”
The mileage tax is estimated to generate a substantial amount of revenue. However, factoring in the cost of TERDS, the necessary funding for the NHDC, a bipartisan commission to oversee the funds management at the NHDC, and an independent commission to monitor the bipartisan commission, the government will actually end up spending more money than it brings in.
But Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood says the program will lose money more slowly than other proposals.
An alternative idea was to issue rebates for non-motorists to buy cars, thereby increasing the number of vehicles and, therefore, the amount paid for the gas tax.
“We’re going to lose money regardless, but the alternative would have meant losing even more money,” LaHood said. He noted that federal budget practices allow a smaller loss of money to be entered in the books as a net savings, which can then be listed as an increase in funds.
“So ultimately,” he said, “the government will actually appear to bring in net revenue from the tax, making it a success.”