WASHINGTON — Despite opposition from the White House, a proposal to tax motorists on the number of miles they drive each year is gathering speed on Capitol Hill.
Its popularity is increasing as Congress searches for alternatives to the federal gasoline tax, which isn't indexed to inflation and hasn't been raised since 1993.
Supporters say that a mileage tax would be a more reliable source of funding for the upkeep of the nation's roads and bridges. Many environmentalists endorse it, saying that it would lead to less driving and less pollution.
However, the proposal is raising privacy concerns — particularly if GPS devices were to monitor mileage — and opponents say that the last thing people need is a new tax, particularly in the middle of a recession. Some critics, moreover, fear that it would have a disproportionate impact in states such as California, which has longer-than-average commutes.
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A bipartisan commission that Congress created said last week that lawmakers should increase the gasoline tax by 10 cents per gallon but begin shifting to a mileage tax.
"With the expected shift to more fuel efficient vehicles, it will be increasingly difficult to rely on the gas tax to raise the funds needed to improve — let alone maintain — our nation's surface transportation infrastructure," said Robert Atkinson, the chairman of the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission.
The idea is nothing new in Congress.
At a hearing last year, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., called the mileage tax a brilliant idea.
Last week, after the White House said it would oppose such a tax, Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., rushed to its defense, saying that the new administration should be "open to new ideas and open to dialogue."
"Whether they want it or not, they are going to get it," Oberstar said in a speech to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
The opinions of the two veteran lawmakers carry punch because they head the Senate and House of Representatives transportation committees, which oversee the country's infrastructure. With Boxer and Oberstar promising to examine the mileage tax as an option, the idea is sure to create a lively debate this year.
The proposal has plenty of skeptics.
"The gas tax strikes me as being far more appropriate," said freshman Republican Rep. Tom McClintock of California, adding that it automatically provides a discount for lighter vehicles. "The heavier and less efficient your car . . . the more gas you consume, and therefore the more tax you pay."
In addition, McClintock said, a mileage tax could result in government making "arbitrary distinctions," taxing the number of miles driven in different types of vehicles at different rates.
The proposal already is fueling privacy concerns.
Critics are objecting to proposals to use Global Positioning System devices to keep track of how many miles drivers log and where they go. The technology is part of federally funded test projects that are under way in Oregon and elsewhere.
For Boxer, it's a "Big Brother system tracking your every move." While she says a mileage tax "is the way to go," she said she wanted to scrap the technology and rely on an honor system in which drivers would simply certify the number of miles they drove each year.
"That's thousands of years away, that we're going to track where people take their cars; I don't think so," Boxer said at a hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
When transportation officials pitched the idea at a committee hearing last year, Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, the senior Republican on the panel, told them: "Don't waste your time on that one. It ain't going to happen."
Many environmentalists endorse the proposed mileage tax, saying that it would lead to less driving and less pollution. However, some critics fear that it would have a disproportionate impact in states with long commutes.
The mileage tax is one of many ideas under consideration.
While the commission gave its highest marks to a mileage tax, it suggested that Congress also consider options such as a tariff on imported oil and taxes on tires, trucks and trailers, among others. Boxer says there also are other possibilities: user fees, freight fees and infrastructure bonds.
She said that the 2007 collapse of a bridge in Minneapolis, which killed 13 people, was a reminder that Congress must increase spending on infrastructure quickly. She said that there was such a backlog of projects that it would require $495 billion just to maintain the current system.
Not only has the proposed mileage tax resulted in divisions among Democrats in Washington, it's also caused a split in President Barack Obama's new administration.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former Republican congressman from Illinois, kicked off the latest tiff last month when he said that he was considering a mileage tax as one long-term option for raising money to pay for infrastructure projects.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs responded promptly, saying that a mileage tax "is not and will not be a policy of the Obama administration."
That drew a quick retort from Oberstar.
"I have news for you," Oberstar said. "Transportation policy is not going to be written from the press room of the White House."
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