Put brakes on plan to tax drivers based on mileage

As pothole season draws near, the poor quality of our roads rightly should draw attention. The question is how to raise money for repairs and upgrades — $400 million for I-94, for example — without giving drivers sticker shock.


The latest idea comes from a blue-ribbon federal panel, which last week argued to eliminate gasoline taxes in favor of a system that charges people for every mile they drive. These advocates say technology — such as high-tech devices in every car — and necessity can make this system possible by 2020.


Not so fast, we say. The Obama administration correctly put the brakes on an overhaul of how this nation funds roadwork. For now, there is no need to turn away from gasoline taxes.


Backers of reform say something must be done to improve the nation’s roads. They are correct.


A hike in the federal gasoline tax, which has been 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993, would raise money. That might not bring in as much money once hybrid vehicles that draw on electricity become a bigger part of America’s automotive fleet.


Still, we reject the conclusion that a tax based on mileage is the solution. Why? Mostly, it would drive people away from the behavior that advocates are promoting.


A tax on gasoline encourages drivers to slow down or drive fuel-efficient vehicles. A tax on mileage would do nothing of the sort.


The better approach should continue to rely on the fuel tax. Cars that burn gasoline are not going away anytime soon, and at some point their drivers will have to pay higher taxes on gasoline. Not now, of course, when the economy is reeling.


There are other options. Federal and state governments must continue looking at partners to spend on roads. Private investors or pension funds can pay for added lanes on busy roads and recoup their investment through tolls.


Governments also can spend to limit damage. Weigh stations for trucks can be manned for more hours. The extra enforcement can discourage scofflaw drivers whose heavy loads put undue wear on roads.


The debate over the nation’s roads has just begun, and it is clear no one is satisfied with the existing system that leaves so many roads in poor shape. Taxing drivers on every mile they travel, however, is not the way out of this mess.