Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Great Big Toll Booth in the Sky

Years ago, while working as a journalist in Washington, I wrote a few short pieces about how then-newfangled technologies, being developed by a few universities with grants from the federal government, were going to crack open the door to a whole new method of taxing motorists by the mile -- something I described back then as The Great Big Toll Booth in the Sky.

Instead of taxing us by the gallon, a longstanding practice that just isn't meeting the government's insatiable demand for revenue, the then-emerging ability to track every vehicle's every move from space, via satellite, might one day allow authorities to impose a mileage tax, I warned, possibly in addition to, not in lieu of, the good old gas tax.

Back in 2001, when I did the stories, it all seemed like a nutty fantasy, dreamed-up by some mad technocrat in the bowels of the department of revenue. But it's no futuristic fantasy now. Now, it's very much on the verge of becoming a reality, as this news story out of Minnesota attests:

"GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. -- The Minnesota Department of Transportation is looking for 500 people to test technology that could someday be used to collect a mileage-based user fee.

Mn/DOT anticipates a fee on road usage might someday be necessary as more fuel efficient and hybrid cars are on the road, decreasing revenue from the gas tax.

"This research will provide important feedback from motorists about the effectiveness of using technology in a car or truck to gather mileage information," said Cory Johnson, project manager.

"We are researching alternative financing methods today that could be used 10 or 20 years from now when the number of fuel efficient and hybrid cars increase and no longer produce enough revenue from a gas tax to build and repair roads."

So, is The Great Toll Booth in the Sky really 10 or 20 years off? It's probably half that far off, if we're lucky -- and unless people rebel.

And isn't it odd that the same government prodding and pushing Americans to be more fuel efficient, by urging us to choose more environmentally-friendly rides, is at the same time hatching new schemes to squeeze more money out of us, as our "reward" for conserving? It's not odd at all, given the fickle nature and constant desire to tinker among social engineers.

It's probably too much to expect that Minnesota's mileage tax guinea pigs will grasp the fuller implications of this demented experiment and refuse to participate, as conscientious objectors to the next great innovation in taxation. So our only hope of derailing this idea is to warn the people of what's ahead and hope they raise hell.

I tried to do it back in 2001, even if it then seemed far-fetched. I'll try to do it again now, when it's just around another bend in the road. Apply the brakes now if you want to stop this from happening.

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