My column for the Washington County Daily News is online and in print. I sound a warning bell about a push for a new kind of tax. Here’s a part:
The city of Appleton was one of the first municipalities in Wisconsin to implement a wheel tax. Now, in what might be the start of a new tax trend, they are considering implementing another new tax after finding that the wheel tax is not generating enough tax money to cover their spending.
What is a transportation utility fee? Invented in Fort Collins, Colorado, in 1984, a transportation utility fee is based on the rationale that the transportation infrastructure functions as a public utility like the water, sewer, or electricity systems. As a utility, users of the transportation system are charged based on their consumption of the system. Also, conveniently for the taxing authority, utility fees are not subject to the same strictures as taxes and can be implemented with more impunity by the local government.
Unlike water, sewer, and electricity, however, there is not a good way to actually measure the consumption of the transportation infrastructure without tracking each individual’s movement on the roads. Absent the technical, political, or cultural feasibility of always having the government tracking everyone’s movements (that might be coming), a government that wishes to implement a transportation utility fee must use proxy distinctions to divvy up the fee.
If we are to treat our transportation infrastructure as a utility, then we must also rescind all of the other taxes and fees that are levied to pay for our transportation infrastructure. Our transportation infrastructure is either a utility to be funded through user fees or it is a public good to be supported through general taxes. It cannot be both.