Opinion

Big Brother headed to Washington?

Imagine you and your family sitting down to dinner when there’s a thunderous knock at the door. You open the door to find two uniformed men standing on your porch.

“Good evening,” they say. “We’re with the State Mileage Militia and we need to see your car. Please get your keys and take us to your garage.”

Far-fetched? Hopefully.

With no fanfare and very little public discussion, state lawmakers in 2008 established targets for how many miles you and I can drive each year. It’s called VMT – Vehicle Miles Traveled. Aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the legislation calls for cutting the number of miles we drive by 18 percent by 2020, 30 percent by 2035 and 50 percent by 2050.

This session, lawmakers are proposing to have regional transportation planning organizations figure out how to reach the VMT targets. The options include restricting suburban development, increasing population density in urban growth areas, toll roads, congestion pricing, raising parking prices or banning parking altogether.

Many think we will eventually have a VMT tax – a tax on each mile we drive. In Europe, the Netherlands will transition to a VMT by 2014 and Denmark is set to implement theirs in 2016.

By that time, we won’t need the Mileage Militia to track our mileage. It will be done remotely by sensors in our cars. Science fiction? Not at all.

Currently, many new cars are equipped with on-board GPS mapping systems. These computers do more than provide directions. They store information on how far you drive, where you go, how fast you drive and if you slam on the brakes too often. When the technology becomes standard within the next several years, the government need only use remote sensors to record the information from your passing car.

Does it feel a little like Big Brother is watching?

There are so many things wrong with this VMT approach I don’t know where to begin.

First of all, the original 2008 legislation was pushed through below the radar screen. Janet Ray of AAA Washington says, “We don’t think there has been enough analysis of impacts on the economy and people’s mobility. The benchmarks for reducing an individual’s VMT were inserted at the last minute last year – there was no time to vet the numbers or have the public take a look at it.”

Even as VMT moves forward, a lot of unanswered questions remain. How will the VMT impact global warming? (No one knows.) How will this affect our economy? (No answer.)

While the limits may make sense in urban areas with mass transit, what about people who live in rural communities? Imposing a one-size-fits-all target is unfair.

If mileage limits are ultimately assessed on individual drivers, what happens to people whose jobs require them to drive a hundred miles a day? What will sales reps and plumbers and electricians do when they hit their mileage limits – refuse to serve customers? Lawmakers don’t have an answer.

Forcing people to live in cities with limited housing stock will drive up prices. Where will middle class and low-income people find affordable housing? What about the people who want to raise their kids in a house with a yard?

If we succeed in cutting our miles driven by 50 percent, where will the state get the gas tax revenue for highway and bridge maintenance? Activists are adamant that VMT fees, fines and taxes will not be used for highways.

The bottom line is VMT is the wrong approach. We don’t need to be punished or coerced. When people are educated and encouraged to do the right thing, they come through every time.

Washington has some great incentive programs and lawmakers should expand those, rather than focusing on reducing choices and limiting our mobility.

Currently, some 250,000 drivers at 800 companies and 1,100 worksites across the state take part in the Commute Trip Reduction Program of subsidized bus passes, van pools and carpools. In fact, Washington has one of the top programs in the nation.

As of this January, purchases of new hybrid or flex-fuel cars are exempt from the sales tax. Ironically, by focusing on miles driven rather than fuel used, the VMT treats gas guzzlers and hybrids alike.

The people of Washington don’t need legislators and regional planners figuring out ways to control our behavior. And we don’t need Big Brother watching our every move.

Don Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business.

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