Virginia just elected Democrat Terry McAuliffe as governor, as had been predicted by every poll conducted during the past few months — although at much smaller margins than had been projected. During the twilight hours of the campaign, some of Republican Ken Cuccinelli’s supporters began attacking Libertarian Robert Sarvis for various alleged ideological sins. One in particular involved Sarvis’s expressed support for adopting a user-based funding model for Virginia’s roads, specifically his mention of a mileage-based user fee as a possible replacement to fuel and non-user tax revenue.
The claim is that this is necessarily a government surveillance scheme and that such a proposal is inherently unlibertarian. This is false and is based upon ignorance of how such systems actually operate. Furthermore, labeling a mileage-based user fee system as unlibertarian runs contrary to the opinions of virtually every libertarian transportation scholar. What follows is my attempt to articulate why libertarians ought to support mileage-based user fees over fuel taxes and general tax revenue funding for transportation.
Virginia’s New Transportation Law
To put this in context, outgoing Republican Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell enacted this past spring a tax-and-spend transportation law that raised taxes, failed to do serious program reform, and increased the share of non-user funding for Virginia’s roads. CEI harshly criticized the plan for these reasons. In the lead up to the vote, Cuccinelli supported a watered-down proposal that didn’t rely on the general sales and use tax increases backed by McDonnell. However, the Cuccinelli-supported plan, just like the McDonnell plan, relied on increased sales tax funding of transportation, and assumed Congress would legalize state Internet sales taxes so Virginia could use the “Amazon tax” to fund transportation projects.
In October, the Cuccinelli campaign released a seemingly reasonable transportation plan that stressed the devolution of funding and management responsibility from the state to local authorities (the Sarvis campaign also repeatedly stressed decentralization of transportation funding and management). While decentralization, ideally to the facility level, is a goal shared by many fans of free markets and limited government, the Cuccinelli plan failed to articulate how locally controlled roads should be funded — specifically, the revenue collection mechanisms. Out of the three candidates, only Sarvis offered user-based road pricing alternatives such as tolling and a mileage-based user fee (MBUF).