Massachusetts won’t be joining Oregon and California in implementing a vehicle miles traveled pilot program anytime soon. Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, vetoed a bill on Aug. 10 that the Democratic-controlled Massachusetts Legislature had passed 10 days earlier to permit the state’s Department of Transportation to start a VMT pilot.
"I would never support a vehicle miles traveled tax unless I was absolutely sure it was not going to create an additional burden on drivers in Massachusetts, especially on drivers in parts of the commonwealth where there's not a lot of available public transportation," Baker said in a signing statement that announced his veto of the VMT provision in the highway funding bill. “I worry a lot about the consequences of this for everybody from Worcester west. It feels to me like it falls into a category of something people really ought to know a lot more about before they head down this road."
The pilot, which would have included up to 500 volunteer drivers, could have been a precursor to Massachusetts eventually replacing its fuel taxes with a vehicle miles traveled tax, although no state has yet done so. It’s unclear if trucks would be among the volunteer participants, as is the case in California but isn’t true in Oregon.
“A VMT tax presents many … problems,” Anne Lynch, executive director of the Massachusetts Motor Transportation Association, wrote to Baker on Aug. 2 to encourage his veto. “The VMT tax is unproven. If only certain states implement the VMT tax, how will the commonwealth address out-of-state vehicles that pass through our state? The VMT tax will encourage motorists — commercial or otherwise — to avoid roadways with VMT tax application, leading to increased traffic and safety concerns in communities neighboring major highways. Third, VMT taxes actually penalize lower-earning workers. … Fourth, VMT taxes are administratively burdensome for government to oversee.”
The bills, which would have allowed Massachusetts to apply for a $300,000 Federal Highway Administration grant to cover half the costs of the VMT pilot, passed the House 158-0 and the Senate 38-1. If Massachusetts didn’t receive the grant, its Department of Transportation would have been required to reapply in each of the next four years in hopes of being chosen. However, that all became moot since the Legislature couldn’t override Baker’s veto because its 2016 sessions ended July 31.
“We believes this pilot would negatively impact commercial traffic, so it was important that the governor nip in this bud now,” Lynch told Transport Topics. “With electronic tolling about to be put in place, that would make it very easy for the state to move into VMT.”