It’s coming, not tomorrow, but soon. You and I will be asked by our federal and state representatives how the nation and Indiana should pay for the roads we drive.
In the 1800s, local property taxes covered the road fund. People with more time than money might meet their local obligations working on the roads when not working on their farms.
In the 1900s, it became clear that well-maintained road systems were vital to national, state and local interests. As the property tax diminished in importance, state and federal funding increased their roles in financing our roads.
Now, the existing system is under pressure and alternatives are being considered. In Indiana, we pay 18 cents per gallon of gas we buy at the pump. Yet as our cars and trucks become more efficient and get more miles per gallon, revenues do not keep pace with miles driven.
One way out is to raise the gas tax. This would encourage more hybrid and electric car sales, a policy consistent with reducing air pollution. But it discriminates against older cars, trucks and their owners.
Another way does not discriminate among vehicles according to their power source: increase parking taxes. Tax land that is used for parking, even if there is no existing fee for parking (as at most malls). However, drivers (voters) hate parking fees, often thinking that parking is (or should be) provided by property owners or the city for free.
Perhaps less disliked is the idea of charging a mileage fee that would support the roads and bridges we use daily. It’s a simple idea with immense complexities.
In its purest form, the owner of a vehicle reports the mileage when the annual license on that vehicle is renewed. The next year the renewal form shows that mileage and the owner records the current mileage. Then the owner multiplies the number of miles driven in the interval (a year in most cases) by the tax rate.
Yes, this has its problems. It assumes drivers can read the odometers on their cars and are capable of subtracting the old mileage figure from the new one. Then drivers must be capable of multiplying two numbers.
These elementary school tasks are already performed by those who file the state income tax form.
“But won’t people cheat?” you may rightfully ask. Of course they will, just as they cheat on their state and federal income taxes. But odometer readings could be checked and recorded when drivers are stopped for some other offense.
Annual self-reporting is preferable to a system whereby a device is placed in your car to record and report where you are driving at what hour. These monitors are a threat to privacy already in use as the “EZ-Pass” or “I-Pass” on toll roads.
We are going to have to find a new way to fund our roads; it shouldn’t mean a radical change in our lives.
Opinions are solely the writer's. Morton Marcus is an economist, author and speaker formerly at the Kelley School of Business, Indiana University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.