Paying by the mile may be coming

Guest Columnist

  • Friday, October 3, 2008 2:59am
  • Opinion

In the years ahead, you may be paying a monthly VMT fee along with your power, telephone, water and garbage bill. VMT stands for “vehicle miles traveled” and it would replace the current gas tax.

For the last 60 years, government levied taxes at the pump to fund highways and bridges. It is relatively easy to administer because service station owners collect it and pass it along to the government. The money was put in highway trust funds and then apportioned to state and local governments for freeways, streets, roads and rail crossings.

The system worked well as long as cars averaged around 10 miles a gallon. But as cars became more fuel efficient, gas tax revenues started flattening even as traffic steadily mounted. Now our highway and freeway network is not only woefully inadequate, but funding to maintain it is slipping farther behind.

The culprit is us. We demanded more fuel-efficient cars as gas prices rose from 30 cents a gallon in 1973 to over $3 a gallon in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Current projections show that in 10 years, if we rely on gas taxes, we will be $500 billion short of what we’ll need just to maintain the system now in place. To improve transportation to meet growing demand, the gap grows to $1.1 trillion.

The proposed VMT, which has been endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is a user-fee concept that has been around for a while. For example, on the East Coast there have been toll roads for years; and in the 1950s, Washington Gov. Albert Rosellini successfully used tolls to build key bridges, most notably the Hood Canal and Seattle’s 520 floating bridges near the University of Washington.

But the VMT has its problems.

Collecting the VMT will be more difficult than collecting tolls and gas taxes. Tolls and gas taxes are collected at specific points of service.

And questions about the VMT may make it politically unpopular. For example, how will the government track your miles driven? How will the state ensure that drivers pay? How will the government track your car, but still protect your privacy?

There is an old saying in politics: “People would rather deal with the devil [or tax] they know rather than the one they don’t.” In this case, they know the gas tax; they don’t know the VMT.

Second, the VMT would face a rough transition. People are used to taxes included in the price at the pump. It is more obscure than a monthly VMT statement for $50 or $100.

Third, it will cost billions to develop reporting and billing systems to collect the VMT. It shifts the tax collection from point of sale to a system similar to assessments for workers’ comp and unemployment insurance coverage.

Finally, it shifts the tax enforcement from the private sector. So if motorists don’t pay, the government swallows the loss.

There is a long, bumpy road ahead if we shift from consumption to a usage-based transportation funding system like tolls or a VMT. But it may not matter if we like it or not. As we continue the shift to hybrid cars and alternative fuels, it may be the only system in the future to build the roads and bridges we need.

Don C. Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business.

In consideration of how we voice our opinions in the modern world, we’ve closed comments on our websites. We value the opinions of our readers and we encourage you to keep the conversation going.

Please feel free to share your story tips by emailing

To share your opinion for publication, submit a letter through our website Include your name, address and daytime phone number. (We’ll only publish your name and hometown.) We reserve the right to edit letters, but if you keep yours to 300 words or less, we won’t ask you to shorten it.

More in Opinion

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at
Reasons to ban Gov. Jay Inslee’s natural gas ban | Brunell

Column: Switching from natural gas to electricity is complicated and will impact everyone.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact
Can a Texas-style abortion law happen in Washington? | Roegner

If politicians really want to anger women voters, the easiest way is… Continue reading

William Shaw is General Manager of the Snoqualmie Valley Record. Contact:
Independent community journalism is crucial — now more than ever

During these times of change and division, the need to highlight what brings our community together is even stronger.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact
Back to the classroom during abnormal times | Roegner

If it didn’t feel so normal, we might forget about the coronavirus… Continue reading

Robert Toomey, CFA/CFP, is Vice President of Research for S. R. Schill & Associates on Mercer Island.
What’s up with the real estate market? | Guest column

As we all know, the residential real estate market and prices have… Continue reading

9/11 Memorial in Cashmere, Washington. Photo courtesy of Greg Asimakoupoulos
Twenty years after tragedy brought us together | Guest column

Recently, I was reflecting on where I was and what I was… Continue reading

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact
Next year’s elections are already underway | Roegner

The 2021 session of the Washington State Legislature was dominated by the… Continue reading

Screenshot of Voice of America footage from the August 2021 scene at Kabul’s international airport in Afghanistan.
What the Afghan wants to say | Guest column

The American interest in Afghanistan goes back to the Cold War era,… Continue reading

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact
King County executive wins battle with suburbs over inquests | Roegner

Since 1854, when Washington was a territory, inquests have been required whenever… Continue reading

In a three-day event ahead of the November 2020 elections, the voting center at Federal Way’s Performing Arts and Event Center saw 1,433 voters, which included 466 newly registered voters. File photo
Editorial: Baseless claims of fraud threaten voter confidence

Without evidence of fraud, it’s those alleging irregularities who are a threat to election integrity.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal told a crowd in Port Angeles he would like to see school districts have the ability to increase their local levies. (Jesse Major/Peninsula Daily News)
Message from state superintendent regarding school employee vaccinations

After a year and a half of remote and hybrid learning, my… Continue reading

A Sept. 10, 2020, satellite image shows smoke from U.S. wildfires blanketing the majority of the West Coast. (European Space Agency)
Editorial: The UN climate report, ‘The Lorax’ and us

The report and the Dr. Seuss classic offer a dire warning — and hope — for responding to climate change.