Could Napa residents be charged a tax for every mile they drive, with a government GPS device tracking the distance?
Bay Area regional governments are studying the prospect of doing just that throughout the nine-county region as a way to plug money into roads and transit.
The money would go to support goals of reducing traffic congestion and carbon emissions, while closing funding gaps created by the weakening value of the federal excise tax on gasoline. That tax, unchanged since the early 1990s, has been eroded by inflation.
At a joint meeting last week of the Association of Bay Area Governments and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, members voted to include the study a vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) tax in a broader environmental impact report for its long-term Plan Bay Area.
Napa County Supervisor Bill Dodd, the local representative to the MTC, said he’s confident the study will never be implemented.
If ever he ever has a chance to vote on the GPS-based fee, he would vote an “emphatic no,” he said.
“I don’t believe the commission will accept any kind of VMT tax,” Dodd said.
Nor did Dodd believe there’s much support for the tax at MTC. The VMT tax is merely one of several scenarios the regional agency is studying with ABAG that look at everything from congestion to air quality to sea level rise, he said.
Special interest groups bring forward ideas like a VMT tax, and it’s incumbent upon ABAG and MTC to study the issue, Dodd said. If nothing else, Dodd said the study will likely offers reasons not to do it.
Dodd said he didn’t support the tax because it essentially puts infrastructure cost onto the backs of Bay Area drivers.
“It would be inequitable to do it now,” Dodd said. “I think it’s very, very unfair and hard to take 50 years of infrastructure and put all of the cost moving forward on one small segment of the population.”
MTC studied the idea of a VMT tax in 2007 and 2008 as part of its Transportation 2035 Plan, and included the tax in an aggressive, albeit undoubtedly unpopular, pricing scenario.
In addition to the VMT tax, the transit panel also looked at parking surcharges of $1 per trip and congestion tolls of 25 cents per mile for driving on the freeway during peak commute periods. It concluded that these measures, if implemented, would increase the cost of driving from 39 cents per mile to $1.28 per mile for some trips.
The agency concluded at the time that pricing, along with land-use policies, was an effective means of achieving goals of reducing congestion, vehicle miles driven and emissions.
People who live and work in Napa County expressed a mix of opinions on the idea this week.
Dan Zador, a Napa resident for 10 years, said he was opposed to the notion of installing a GPS device to track every mile driven, but needed more information before formulating an opinion on the idea of a VMT tax.
“I’d be against a GPS device,” Zador said. “There’d be no reason for it. Tax the amount of gas you consume because it accomplishes the same thing.”
Yountville resident Shirley Fraser said she is opposed to the idea of the tax. Fraser said she once owned a business in Alameda and commuted back and forth from Yountville. She said she still drives to Walnut Creek and San Francisco four times a month.
“Nobody’s going to go for a GPS device on their car from the government,” Fraser said. “Are they crazy? I think it’s unfair to penalize people who have to drive. They should get their minds on other things.”
Vacaville resident Kevin Luckey, the dean of physical education at Napa Valley College, said he needed more information before opining on the tax. But he raised the larger question of how Bay Area residents intend to pay for infrastructure in the future.
“Selfishly, I don’t like it,” Luckey said. “On the other hand, it’s a situation where infrastructure needs to be paid for somehow.”
Luckey said the Bay Area’s infrastructure problems will worsen.
“We seem to really lag behind in taking care of our roads and bridges,” Luckey said. “Some kind of plan needs to come forward to make sure they’re taken care of, not just for us but for future generations.”
Luckey said he questioned how such a tax could be levied on the millions of tourists who come to Napa and the Bay Area every year, who amount to some of the heaviest users of local streets and roads.
Dodd said a more equitable solution to the problem — at least for Napa County — is a local sales tax dedicated for streets and roads maintenance, which county residents will vote on this fall.
“If we’re going to fix Napa we’ve got to do it ourselves,” Dodd said. “We also can’t lose sight of the fact that while we all pay sales tax, one-third of the sales tax is paid for by tourists.”