Washington is testing a new driving fee

It is a recognition that, despite concerns about privacy, a fee for “vehicles that drove miles” may be the most logical successor to the current gas tax, which burns a portion of the country’s transportation costs. Paid at the pump, the federal gas tax – which has not been increased since 1993 – has steadily lost ground as vehicles become more fuel efficient. But infrastructure needs continue to climb, and increasingly, lawmakers have decided to close the gap with deficit spending.

A fee of one kilometer has the great advantage that it can capture the road consumption of all vehicles, even those that do not use fossil fuels. But it also comes with serious baggage, mainly concerns about privacy, government tracking and consequences for rural Americans that are hard to overcome. Even the modest steps of the infrastructure bill quickly drew a culture war game from the Republican rep. Lauren Boebert (Col.), Der called the provision a “tax on rural America, imposed by the DC beltway liberals.”

And that’s part of why many who study transportation say it’s at least a decade away from being a viable option, even though the national pilot is a step towards narrowing the window.

“This is not something you can turn on overnight – you have a delay of 12 to 15 years, so the longer we wait to start implementing this, the longer it will be before we can start earning revenue from it. , ”Said Rob Atkinson, President of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a scientific and technological think tank that led a panel in 2009 that examined funding opportunities for infrastructure.

Need a federal champion

In fact, it has been estimated as a decade away for some time, in part because while several states have had individual pilot programs running for years, there has been little focus on nationwide implementation. In 2015, Bob Poole, director of transportation policy at the conservative think tank Reason Foundation, told a House committee that a federal VMT system was 10 years away from viability.

In a recent interview with POLITICO, Poole gave his latest estimate: 10 years away.

“There’s a joke among us that this is like nuclear fusion – it’s been 10 years away for a long time, and it’s going to be 10 years away for a much longer time,” he said.

Poole said the VMT has not been politically possible because of the same dynamics that have led to raising the federal gas tax to a third-rail issue: lack of political will. Congress has instead preferred to “in a rather low-key way just [fund] state pilots, ”he said citing a grant program established by Congress in 2015 that funds VMT pilots in some states.

The reason some transportation experts are in favor of moving away from a gas tax and to a VMT system implies the changed nature of what Americans drive. In the past, fuel taxes were a reasonable decision for how much wear and tear was required on people’s vehicles on roads and bridges. But cars are becoming increasingly more fuel-efficient, and in some cases do not use gasoline at all.

This means that they pay less at the pump – and relatedly, it means that they pay relatively less to the national system, despite the fact that they contribute just as much to the maintenance needs of the infrastructure. A VMT would capture not only electric vehicles that currently pay nothing, but also other alternative-powered vehicles such as natural gas and hydrogen or hybrid vehicles.

Joung Lee, police director at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said VMT has a better position in Washington than it did ten years ago, with signs of bipartisan support for the idea emerging in recent years.

“There were also a lot of political considerations that were taking place 10 plus years ago at this point,” he said. “But what I think was missing at the time was the political interest and willingness to really consider it because it was so new.”

In Lee’s view, moving to the VMT is less about overcoming bureaucratic obstacles and more about finding the political will at the federal level.

“If people really want to do this and find a way to do it administratively, they will do it,” he said. “It’s just a matter of how that rank is.”

Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), The rank-and-file member of the House Transportation Committee and an outspoken supporter of the VMT, said it is “important to move this to the national level without further delay — take these experiences from the state pilots and apply them” in a real, nationwide demonstration environment. “Graves said his support for such a change depends on addressing concerns about privacy and equality in rural areas, but that the state’s progress on these issues suggests they are solvable problems.

Graves would have been well positioned to push a shift to VMT from his seats in the committee before the House switched to Democratic control.

Rep. Jarl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), Another longtime supporter of VMT, said he has been using VMT himself in Oregon for more than a decade and sees it as the “long-term solution” for the Highway Trust Fund, but still sees it as 10 years away from broad implementation.

“It’s not ready for prime time and we need to be able to comprehensively replace the gas tax with a traffic tax that is fair and sustainable,” he said. “And we have enough time to be able to do it right.”

State test beds

Lack of progress at the federal level does not mean that there has been a crash everywhere — Oregon and Utah have fully functioning opt-in programs that collect mile-based revenue. Dozens of states have launched similar pilots or studies of the concept working to address the logistical and privacy issues that opponents say are making VMT impractical right now.

Some of the issues that state-level programs are trying to address: the concern that VMT disadvantages farmers who have to drive more, that it costs too much to collect, that it does not do enough to take gas-guzzling cars off the road, and that tracking sites would violate drivers’ privacy.

Much of the current work to study the solutions to these issues is within two multi-state coalitions of state transportation officials: RUC West, which has 17 state members from Texas to Alaska, and the Eastern Transportation Coalition, which has 17 members along the Eastern Seaboard.

Michelle Godfrey, a spokeswoman for Oregon’s OReGO VMT program and RUC West, said the coalition of Western states was created out of “self-preservation” states wanted to try VMT but lacked funding or political support. Without any federal program, they have become the primary masters of VMT, though none of the coalitions consider themselves an advocacy firm.

Godfrey said Oregon frequently casts calls from other states asking for advice on how to get started and extending their aid at the state penny.

“We do it just because we want to help people, and if another state makes a toll program, it lifts us all – it brings us much closer to a national system,” she said. “So every state that expresses interest, we do what we can to support them in that effort.”

Protection of personal information

One of the most pressing challenges of any move to VMT involves privacy concerns. States with VMT pilots have variously offered drivers a choice between regular odometers, plug-in odometers, GPS trackers and smartphone apps.

Options that could involve any proposal for tracking will almost certainly raise concerns about privacy, with a high potential for being politicized for fear that the government will somehow track drivers.

Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU, said privacy advocates “will definitely keep up” to ensure the VMT is set up in a way that prevents the government from obtaining its citizens’ location information.

VMT advocates say these concerns about confidentiality are exaggerated.

Atkinson said VMT programs “actually do the opposite” of tracking systems and compare the technology to road transponders deployed to drivers’ windshields, which collect location information anonymously and do not pass the information on to the government.

Nate Bryer, vice president of innovation at Azuga – which provides computing services to the Oregon program and has worked with more than a dozen other VMT pilots – said the data is anonymized and aggregated. In addition, Oregon requires that it be deleted after 30 days.

Cost challenges

A VMT will almost certainly be much more expensive to charge than the gas tax, which requires additional bureaucracy and public funds to operate it. In 2012 Rand Corporation study found that fuel taxes – which are levied at the wholesale level – cost less than 1 percent of revenue to administer, while VMT can cost 5 to 6 percent of revenue to collect.

“If you’re talking about introducing a national mileage charge, you’re now making everyone who runs a taxpayer come from either dozens or a few hundred units responsible for [gas] tax to well over DKK 200 million [for VMT], ”Said Liisa Ecola, a senior policy analyst at RAND who worked on the study.

Another study from the American Transportation Research Institute found a national VMT program can cost $ 20 billion annually or 300 times more than the federal fuel tax. The upfront cost of giving each vehicle a mileage dongle can exceed $ 13 billion alone.

Rural concerns

Others are concerned about the impact that a switch to a VMT fee could have on rural drivers, who often have to drive long distances to work or the grocery store, and who have few or no options for alternative public transport.

According to one study conducted for RUC West, while rural drivers may tend to drive longer distances at a time, they make these trips less frequently. Although their data varied from state to state, rural drivers generally did not drive more kilometers than city counterparts. Overall, the study – which examined Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Texas, Utah and Washington – found that rural areas could ultimately pay 1.9 percent to 6.3 percent less under a VMT system than they do in gas charges.

In addition, if a driver uses a GPS-enabled means to keep track of VMT, the system can exempt private roads from the enumeration.

Consumer acceptance challenges

All of this can mean problems for consumer acceptance, especially given that most of the public do not know at all that they are paying a tax to maintain roads at all, much less have to understand a new mechanism.

Trish Hendren, executive director of the Eastern Transportation Coalition, said managing public perceptions of VMT is one of the most pressing issues her organization has encountered.

Coalition polls found that 70 percent of New Jersey residents mistakenly believe transportation is stable or rising, and 73 percent were unfamiliar with VMT.

“We have a big job as a field to engage with the public and say you value this transport, we hear you do, but the connection between how much you spend and how much you pay is broken , “said Hendren.

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