States consider gas tax alternative
More fuel-efficient cars may cut emissions, but they also cut into gas tax revenue that is used to maintain the nation’s roads and highways. To compensate for continuing decreases in gas consumption, some states are studying mileage-based user fees that would charge drivers for the number of miles they drive, rather than the amount of gas they use.
Between 2008 and 2035, the number of vehicle miles traveled is expected to increase 49.9 percent, while fuel use is projected to rise only 15.4 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Because state gas taxes contribute to highway funds, that means less money for maintenance and improvements even though highway use is increasing. Texas, for instance, needs $188 billion in construction projects by 2030 to maintain an “acceptable transportation system,” but it projects only $102 billion in revenue, including money from the gas tax, according to the Texas Department of Transportation.
In 2006, Oregon’s Road User Fee Task Force launched the nation’s first mileage-based pilot program. For the study, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) installed electronic devices in 285 participating vehicles that tracked miles driven and transmitted the data to wireless readers installed at selected service stations. A central computer then calculated and sent back the mileage fee, and the station deducted gas tax from the sale.
In January, Oregon’s House Interim Transportation Committee introduced HB 2328, which proposes a Vehicle Road Usage Charge of 0.6 cents per mile for electric and plug-in electric hybrid vehicles beginning with 2014 models. The state task force recommended starting with only electric vehicles to increase the legislation’s chances of passing, and, because drivers of those cars pay for little to no gas, starting on a smaller scale would make it easier to implement the mileage-based concept. It could be decades before regular vehicles are included, says Jim Whitty, manager of ODOT’s Office of Innovative Partnerships and Alternative Funding.
While mileage-based fees continue to draw interest, it likely will be years before implementation happens on a large scale, due in part to possible resistance from the public, says Ginger Goodin, senior research engineer with the Texas Transportation Institute. Texas has conducted focus groups and gathered input on the concept of user fees and is finding that residents consistently are concerned with privacy, enforcement and the cost of administration, Goodin says. “We are in a discovery and knowledge-building process right now,” she says. “Every study is a step forward.”
Using their smarts
A Minnesota pilot program, which begins in July, will gather mileage information from 500 drivers using smartphones with GPS. It also will test communicating real-time traffic alerts to drivers and allow drivers to submit information. “We broadened the research and are taking a different approach to see what it would be like if we used cell phones and other devices already available,” says Cory Johnson, project manager.
Jennifer Grzeskowiak is a Laguna Beach, Calif.-based freelance writer.