HARTFORD — A plan to spend $300,000 to study how to charge motorists for miles driven on Connecticut’s highways is fueling accusations that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is speeding toward a new mileage tax.
The state’s application for federal funding for a multistate pilot program pledges taxpayer money, lays out how a mileage tax would work, demonstrates how tracking devices would transmit driving data to taxing authorities and offers possible per-mile fees.
“The grant application makes it clear that this is no little study,” said Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven.
“While Democrat lawmakers and the governor’s office have tried to downplay their efforts to implement a proposed mileage tax, the state’s application shows that this is something they are clearly very serious about, and the administration is willing to spend taxpayer dollars to make it happen,” Fasano said.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the state Senate’s majority Democrats deny they plan to pursue a vehicle miles tax; state transportation officials say the pilot is only intended to gain information about a revenue source under discussion in other states.
Few facts about the mileage tax and Connecticut’s plan to test the levy:
Connecticut, along with New Hampshire, Delaware, Vermont and Pennsylvania, applied for federal funds to test a vehicle mile tax
The tax charges motorists a fee for each mile driven
Drivers plug a tracking device into cars and driving data is transmitted to taxing authorities
Smartphone applications can also be used to transmit driving data
The state’s pilot limited to 50 volunteers and fake taxes will be applied to highway miles driven
Oregon is offering drivers the choice of paying a gas tax or a mileage tax of 1.5 cents per mile
California has already launched a pilot program involving 5,000 drivers to test how a mileage tax would work
“Democrats in the Senate are strongly opposed to any mileage tax,” Joseph said. “Sen. Fasano’s fake hysteria is nothing more than another lame attempt by the Republicans to frighten Connecticut residents.”
Still, the grant application submitted to federal transportation officials by the Interstate 95 coalition on behalf of Connecticut and four other states — New Hampshire, Delaware, Vermont and Pennsylvania — is highly detailed, and seeks $1.5 million in direct funding.
The five states also pledged to contribute $1.5 million to conduct the $3 million pilot program. In Connecticut, 50 volunteer motorists, mostly legislators and state officials, would test a fake vehicle miles tax.
Oregon is now offering motorists the choice of paying a gas tax or a per-mile fee and California recently launched a pilot program involving 5,000 motorists who will install mileage tracking devices in their cars to see a how mileage tax works and how much revenue it can generate.
New revenue source
The grant application discusses at length how plunging transportation revenue is not keeping up with the billions of dollars needed to repair aging highway systems, reduce congestion and lower commuting times.
“State transportation officials say the states are many billions of dollars short of revenue it needs to catch up on repairs,” the coalition said in its application.
“A majority of policymakers and industry analysts across the nation now agree that the fuel tax can no longer be solely relied upon to provide sustainable revenues for improving, operating and maintaining the nation’s roadway infrastructure,” the coalition said.
James Redeker, the state Department of Transportation commissioner, agreed new revenue sources are necessary to maintain and improve aging infrastructure. He noted revenue from the state’s gas tax has been falling for years, the result of cars becoming more fuel efficient.
“We have to look at options and the governor’s transportation panel said we should look at what is being looked at all over the country,” Redeker said. “When you look at the gas tax and state funding, and even the addition of the sales tax, the need to look at some kind of funding stream is critical.”
But Redeker said it’s not up to him whether to pursue a driving tax in the Legislature.
“This is just an effective way to gain some knowledge,” Redeker said of the pilot. “It’s not my job to determine if this will happen. It’s my job to see what the facts are and whether it makes sense.”
Devon Puglia, Malloy’s spokesman, said the governor stands by previous statements that he is not seeking a mileage tax.
Malloy has launched a $100 billion, 30-year initiative to improve the state’s rails, roads and bridges, although how that program will be funded is not known.
The coalition noted future highway funding needs will more than double, from $32 billion a year now to $71 billion annually.
Touched a nerve
“The mileage tax has touched a serious nerve among Democrats and Republicans, unlike any issue I have seen before,” Boucher said. “It has truly fired up taxpayers of all ages from both parties who are fed up with tax hikes and tax hike trial balloons.”
Boucher added “I have the midnight emails to prove it. (The) frustration level is at an all-time high, and I share that frustration.”
Fasano said the $300,000 earmarked for the pilot is the same amount cut from the state’s medical examiner’s office for processing unclaimed corpses.
“It’s sickening that right now our state can’t even afford to take care of all human remains because of a roughly $300,000 cut to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, yet state leaders have no qualms about spending that much to test out a mileage tax,” Fasano said.
“Obtaining this grant would be a huge step toward this new tax,” Fasano said. “Anyone who says it’s not is purposefully misleading the public.”
Redeker said the $300,000 would be spent over multiple years, and stressed the state made it clear to the coalition its commitment depends on future state budgets.
The decision to participate in the pilot was made before budget deficits forced lawmakers earlier this year to slash spending by nearly $1 billion, forcing reductions and layoffs in most state departments, including transportation, Redeker said.
“If you rewind the clock, this opportunity came at a point in the budget process when transportation was not going through the same cuts as everyone else. That changed,” Redeker said.
“We may have to pull out or pull back,” Redeker conceded.
“A mileage tax seems the fairest as it would truly account for driving, not fuel efficiency, like a gas tax or highway tolls, which can be avoided on local roads,” Cameron said. “A sales tax increase to fund transportation would penalize those who don’t drive.”
Cameron said driving on local roads or interstates should not be free and noted someone has to pay for upkeep and improvements.
“Making driving cover its true cost with a mileage tax would be another incentive to take mass transit,” Cameron said. “I enthusiastically endorse the idea, despite its unpopularity. Now let’s see who among our elected leaders has the savvy to sell its merits to motorists. I expect, as with the tolls debate, there will be very few.”
Just plug in
The grant application suggests various ways to track miles driven and transmit the data to a vendor so tax bills can be distributed.
One method involves plugging a small device into the computer port on the driver’s side of a car, the same port mechanics use to check engine codes. Another method employs a GPS smartphone application to track miles and roads used.
Both methods transmit data to a state agency or vender for taxing purposes and billing.
The grant application discusses various per-mile fees, some based on the cost of driving a toll highway, which the coalition said ranges from 3.9 cents a mile in Massachusetts to 32.9 cents a mile near Boston.
In Oregon, drivers are being offered the choice of paying 1.5 cents per mile driven or the state’s 30 cents per gallon gas tax when they fill-up. Motorists receive a tax credit for fuel used if they select the vehicle mile tax. There is a cap on the amount of motorists who can chose the miles tax.
The multistate pilot would also look at how to tax drivers as they cross state lines, what to do about toll highways and how to send tax revenue to the appropriate state.
“There are numerous issues associated with a multistate application, of which only a few have been thoroughly explored,” the coalition noted.
A cost per mile would be established to measure the amount of revenue that could be obtained.
No one would actually be taxed, and billing records, mileage data and driving habits would be used for evaluation purposes only, according to the application.
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