Jul 11, 2009

Mileage Tax

Last year around this time, I wrote a blog post suggesting we crank up the gas tax to $10/gallon while using the entire proceeds to give tax rebates to low income families. The reaction was generally plenty negative, although at least one person told me in person that he thought it might have some merit. No worries.

It turns out that there is a new idea for taxing vehicles on the horizon, one that is only recently possible due to the proliferation of inexpensive GPS technology. A tax based directly on mileage driven. I've found that very few people in the US have heard about this possibility, and most reject it at first glance without deeper consideration.

There was an interesting article last weekend in Reuters about Traffic jams in Manhattan.  In it, the author posited that the average car driven into Manhattan on a weekday causes 3.26 hours of delays to everybody else.  Those delays are felt by individual drivers in terms of a few seconds, but across all of the drivers combined, the delays are very high.  The article goes a bit further to claim that the average car has 1.97 people in it and the average per-car value of that lost time is $48.89/hour, so the societal cost of that average car being driven into Manhattan is as high as $160.

In major cities, many road networks have similar properties to a lesser scale than Manhattan.  Today I drove through San Francisco with no intent to stop in the city, but traffic slowed me down to a much lower speed than I was happy with.  The traffic alone added at least 30 minutes to my journey.  Ick.

A mileage tax at it's simplest adds a device to your car which tracks how many miles you've driven via GPS and charges you a tax based on this.  There are obvious reasons why this initial idea would have people roll their eyes.  The first is usually that a gas-tax has much the same affect and is cheaper to administer.  The second is that it seems to penalize folks who drive more fuel efficient vehicles (or at least not penalize gas-guzzlers).

The important part is that a mileage tax can be far more complex than this.  Instead of a flat tax per mile driven, the tax can vary based on where you are driving, what time, and the type of vehicle you drive (ie: a discount applied to lower-emissions vehicles).

Also, a small premium can be charged for driving in San Francisco during rush hour.  By charging say $1 to drive through San Francisco at lunch time, those willing to pay will have a shorter, faster trip because others are incented to use alternatives and get off the road.  There would be no need for your unit to communicate where it was and when (violating your privacy), it would simply need to have rules for different areas and calculate the tax internally.

A variable rate mileage tax could also nicely solve the problem of toll roads.  Toll roads in the US today are often built with the argument that state X shouldn't have to pay for the road that people in state Y are going to make use of for free.  Simply collecting the tolls has a cost though.  WSDOT did a study in 2007 (See Toll Roads Mean Billions in Extra Costs for Motorists) that indicated for every $100 in revenue raised by toll roads, there was an additional $22 overhead in collecting the tolls themselves.  This also doesn't include the drivers' lost time.

A mileage tax isn't a theoretical idea that can't be easily implemented in practice either, it is already in use in some places.  Last year Holland passed a law that will phase in a mileage tax over several years with variable rate pricing (See: Road Pricing).  In 2006, Oregon recruited 299 drivers for a year-long trial of a mileage tax (See: Oregon's Successful Mileage Tax Experiment).

Obama has however said he is not interested.  However, this may become a looming issue over time.  As fuel efficiency increases and drivers react to higher gas prices, transportation budgets have been feeling serious shortfalls.  It is politically difficult to pass or raise new taxes, which makes regularly updating the gas tax to match the transportation budgets sporadic at best.  The time hasn't come, but perhaps it someday will.

Jul 6, 2009

Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics

I recall a high school physics class where my teacher had us watch a clip from Speed 2. The basic plot of this movie, if you've never seen it, is that a cruise liner is taken over by some madman who has rigged the controls such that the cruise liner is on an irreversible collision course, initially with an oil tanker. Later, the cruise liner is redirected and actually runs ashore at full speed into a coastal town. As the ship runs ashore, it's speed drops and you see cut scenes of the speedometer slowly decreasing as the ship plows through a pier, a road, and some buildings. All the while you get long clips of destruction below the ship and the passengers getting thrown around the deck violently.

In physics class however, we pulled out stopwatches. We had to time the boat from the moment it hit shore to the point it stopped moving. Every speedometer cut scene, we'd note both the time and the current speed of the boat. Then we plotted acceleration. The acceleration was obviously uneven. Worse yet, it was tiny. Cruise liners don't move all that fast to begin with, and this scene was horribly drawn out for cinematic effect. We determined that rather than the passengers getting flung across the deck of the ship, they should have instead been sitting on the deck sipping martinis with no worry over spilling a drop.

It was a fun exercise. At the time, it was also a great excuse to watch a movie in class. That physics teacher was Tom Rogers, one of the standout teachers in my personal education. He runs a website, Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics, where he reviews movies from a solely physics standpoint - sound in space, exploding cars, exploding bullets. It's all there. Including a rant about the new Star Trek movie, which I personally did not enjoy much. He's been interviewed on NPR and has a book out all about movie physics. Definitely a fun way to waste a bit of time.