Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg backed down on his suggestion to tax each mile you drive, after receiving blowback from both sides of the political aisle. Everyone from Republican Sen. Tom Cotton to the press secretary for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign called Buttigieg out for the mileage tax proposal.
While Buttigieg and the Biden administration have backed down from the idea for now, don’t assume they’ll drop it for good. Meanwhile, the very suggestion of a mileage tax is further proof that the Democratic Party represents coastal elites and doesn’t care about the average American.
Buttigieg spoke with CNBC on Friday about the Biden administration’s plan to spend $3 trillion on an infrastructure revamp that would include climate change response and free community college. The first question on a responsible person’s mind — besides what free college has to do with infrastructure — is: Who is going to cough up the $3 trillion?
Buttigieg apparently thinks it would be a good idea to bill truck drivers, midwestern moms going to the grocery store, and rural workers who commute. “A so-called vehicle-miles-traveled tax or mileage tax, whatever you want to call it, could be a way to do it,” he said on Friday.
Such a tax “shows a lot of promise if we believe in that so-called user-pays principle: the idea that part of how we pay for roads is you pay based on how much you drive,” Buttigieg continued. Nevermind the fact that, although the details of Biden’s $3 trillion plan have yet to be explained, it’s already clear it’s not just about roads. In addition to provisions for education and health care, the plan intends “to drive the transition to a clean energy economy.”
On Tuesday, Buttigieg flip-flopped, telling CNN’s Jake Tapper a mileage tax is “not part of the conversation about this infrastructure bill.”
When Biden tapped Buttigieg to head the Department of Transportation, journalist Adam Wren fawned over the fact that Buttigieg enjoyed the board game “Ticket to Ride.” As The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway noted, this does not make a person qualified to be transportation secretary. Buttigieg’s suggestion of a mileage tax only proves that further.
The mileage tax is not just a horrible idea on its face (though it is that), but it taxes drivers for participating in local economies with gasoline they’ve already paid taxes on. It also discriminates against rural communities, which are usually conservative and often poor.
Rural Americans are more likely than urbanites to have more and longer drives to work and to places like the grocery store, church, or the little league diamond. They’re also likely to be poorer. “The rural poverty rate was 16.4 percent in 2017,” reports the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “compared with 12.9 percent for urban areas.”
Additionally, rural communities are more likely to be Republican and more likely to have supported Trump. A Pew survey published in 2018 revealed that 54 percent of Americans in rural counties identified as or leaned Republican, compared with 45 percent in the suburbs and 31 percent in urban counties. The same survey reported that 40 percent of rural residents rated Trump “warmly,” while only 19 percent of urban Americans did.
Buttigieg’s plan would punish these rural voters, who have to drive further than city residents to access the same amenities. He told CNBC he doesn’t want the infrastructure plan to “increase the burden on the middle class,” but a mileage tax would do exactly that.
When I was younger, my family had to drive half an hour to get to the grocery store. Our neighborhood was full of five-acre lots with modest homes and horse pastures, way outside the limits of the closest city that had a population of 60,000. Our neighbor across the street was a retired NYPD mounted policeman. Down the street was a nurse and a homeschooling mom.
A mileage tax wouldn’t be hitting elites who own private jets, like the family of Biden’s climate czar John Kerry. It would slap another burden on working middle-class people like my parents and our neighbors.
While the media lauds Buttigieg for riding a bike to work in Washington, D.C., the majority of the country doesn’t have that option. Unlike metropolitan D.C. — where driving a car is often less practical than taking public transportation or a bike — most Americans have to drive to work.
As the Brookings Institution reported in 2016, over 80 percent of Americans took a car to work. In 2019, the average American’s one-way commute was 27 minutes. Most Americans don’t live in urban areas where public transportation is available. Only 27 percent of Americans lived in urban neighborhoods in 2017, with 52 percent in suburban areas and 21 percent in rural ones.
Biking Buttigieg can get out of his own mileage tax and seems to think the rest of the country can do the same by just deciding to ride a bike. But D.C. is far from representative of how the rest of America works. If the Biden administration cared about working families in flyover America, they would know that.