San Francisco Wants to Install Tracking Devices on Every Car So It Can Tax Drivers by the Mile

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
July 20 2012 11:00 AM

Bad Idea of the Week: Install Tracking Devices on Every Car And Tax Drivers by the Mile

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If Bay Area transportation officials have their way, drivers will have to pay a toll for every mile they drive—not just when they cross a bridge.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Looking for a way to raise money for roads and public transit, San Francisco Bay Area transportation officials have decided to look into a novel idea: Taxing drivers for every mile they drive. The hypothetical tax—which at this point is only being studied as part of a long-range plan—could run from as little as a penny to as much as a dime per mile, perhaps depending on the time of day, according to the Associated Press.

The VMT (vehicle miles traveled) tax, the thinking goes, would not only bring in new revenue but encourage people to drive less. The San Jose Mercury News reports that small pilot tests of a VMT tax in cities in Oregon and Washington have shown “encouraging” results, with drivers reducing their total mileage to save money.

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Sure, but how does the government propose to keep track of the number of miles that every driver drives? Under the idea being studied by the San Francisco-area Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Mercury News’ Mike Rosenberg explains, “Drivers would likely have to install GPS-like trackers on their cars to tally travel in the nine-county Bay Area, from freeways to neighborhood streets, with only low-income people exempted.”

Oh but don’t worry, the government would never dream of using these tracking devices for anything except tallying the total number of miles you drive. "The last thing we're interested in is where you go and what you do," a commission spokesman told the AP.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.