Imagine being taxed a dollar for driving to the store. Commute to work? That'll be a few bucks more.
Is it crazy or the way of the future? The Bay Area is considering a long-range plan to become the first place in the nation to tax drivers for every mile they travel, with an average bill of up to $1,300 per year.
The proposal is a long way from becoming reality. But under the scenario, 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.
Transportation planners know they would have a tough time selling such a radical plan but argue the goal of the so-called VMT (vehicle miles traveled) tax is to reduce traffic and pollution while raising revenue needed to fill potholes and bolster public transit service.
"I don't want to say it's pie in the sky. A VMT charge is really an option for the future to be looked at and considered," said Randy Rentschler, spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the agency leading the effort. He said realistically the plan is so complex it might take a decade to implement if the public buys in.
Under the early proposal, the VMT tax could cost up to a dime per mile, or the cost may peak during rush hour and bottom out, perhaps to less than a penny per mile, when no one's on the roads.
"Are you kidding me?" said South Bay driver Kevin Spencer of Yellow Checker Cab. "It's ludicrous. Some of the families, blue-collar people just trying to make a living, could have to decide whether to pay their mortgage" or drive.
County supervisors and city council members from around the Bay Area, as members of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments, are set Thursday to authorize a study of the proposal, though they haven't yet weighed in on the actual merits of a VMT tax. If approved, officials would likely need the OK from voters and the state Legislature.
But first, they'd have to overcome major concerns about Uncle Sam reaching deeper into your pocket and Big Brother looking over your shoulder. Experts generally think VMT taxes have merit but won't be realistic until the primary source of transportation funding -- taxes on each gallon of gas -- dries up.
"It really would be premature in the next five years to even think about trying something like this," said former presidential transportation adviser Bob Poole, who supports VMT taxes but called the Bay Area plan too "utopian" to be realistic. "There are a huge number of questions that need to be worked on."
Proponents from transit advocates to environmentalists to public policy planners say we need new thinking to reduce rush-hour traffic as the Bay Area grows and new ways to raise billions of dollars to strengthen a deteriorating transportation network.
"We can continue to have more and more potholes and have BART fall apart more frequently, or we can choose to invest in our common future," said Jeff Hobson, deputy director of Oakland-based TransForm, one of the nonprofits that first proposed the idea to the government agencies.
But drivers already fed up with rising gas prices, insurance premiums, parking fees and bridge tolls are likely to revolt against the plan, which hasn't gotten very far when proposed elsewhere in the country.
"It's a big fat no," said Jim Eyer, chair of the Alameda County Libertarian Party. "I'd suspect for various reason it wouldn't be very popular. Everybody already feels like they're over-taxed."
The VMT study is part of the long-term transportation and housing effort called Plan Bay Area, which also includes strategies like raising the Bay Bridge rush-hour toll from $6 to $8 and reducing the size of parking lots. The results are expected in December before the two agencies vote in April.
The court of public opinion, however, has often swiftly killed ideas to charge drivers more. In 2010, San Francisco supervisors quickly scrapped an idea to charge drivers a $6 fee to enter the city from the south after outrage over the plan spread like wildfire. Ideas to raise the gas tax by even miniscule amounts have failed time and again.
The logistics of the VMT tax are still being developed. Traditionally, test programs have featured tracking devices on cars that tally up the number of miles traveled with people paying regular bills, or payments based on odometer readings.
The VMT tax could raise up to $15 million daily, as Bay Area drivers combine to travel about 150 million miles each weekday, led by Santa Clara County (40 million miles) and Alameda County (30 million miles).
Communities in Oregon, Washington state and Atlanta plus a federally-funded-University of Iowa study have all tested VMT taxes in small pilot programs. The results have been encouraging, as drivers generally decreased their car travel. But the subjects were given a cash balance and lost money when they drove, and got to keep whatever was left over.
Around the world, cities like London, Stockholm and Singapore charge drivers to enter the city core, while others charge heavy trucks based on each mile traveled. Only the Dutch have gotten close to a universal tax on vehicle travel.
"Right now,'' Hobson said, "we are not paying for the results of our driving -- we're not paying for the health impacts of it, for the road repairs that we need to do."
Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at twitter.com/rosenberg17.
Bay Area transportation and urban planners are considering a study to tax drivers for every mile they drive with a goal of reducing traffic and raising money for crumbling roads. Here's how it might work:
The average U.S. driver tallies 13,500 miles on their odometer each year, translating to as much as $1,350 per year in VMT taxes under the maximum proposed rate of 10 cents per mile. Pilot programs in other states, though, have charged as low as 0.43 cents per mile during off-peak hours, for a paltry $58 a year.
Using the same range, a drive from San Jose State to AT&T Park in San Francisco would cost between 21 cents and $4.95 in VMT taxes. A trip from Oakland's Jack London Square to the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge would range from 7 cents to $1.66.