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A road map to better US roads

Congress should heed a panel that suggests replacing a tax on gas with one on miles driven.

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It sounds Orwellian, the idea of tracking drivers from space, then taxing them based on miles traveled. But taxing miles instead of gasoline is a more reliable way to pay for America's highways. And it's not the Big Brother intrusion it appears to be.

Gas taxes – at both the federal and state levels – must inevitably go the way of the gas guzzler.

As vehicles become more fuel-efficient, they'll drink less gas, and thus produce less revenue to maintain and improve America's aging roads and mass transit. Add electric cars to the mix, and this revenue stream turns to a trickle.

This is one reason why a bipartisan blue-ribbon panel this week unanimously recommends replacing the federal gas tax with a tax on "vehicle miles traveled" (VMT) by 2020 – and indexing it for inflation. (At 18 cents per gallon, the federal gas tax has gone unchanged since 1993.)

In Europe, the Netherlands will transition to a VMT by 2014 and Denmark by 2016. Massachusetts, Oregon, Rhode Island, North Carolina, Minnesota, and Idaho are looking at a mileage tax.

Behind this trend lies another important realization: Financing for transport infrastructure can no longer depend on indirect fees hidden in the overall cost of a gallon of gas but must rely more on direct user fees, such as tolling and congestion pricing.

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