It’s confirmation that despite privacy concerns, a “vehicle miles traveled” charge may be the most logical successor to the current gasoline tax that drives some of the country’s transportation spending. The federal gas tax paid at the petrol pump – which has not been levied since 1993 – is steadily losing ground as vehicles become more fuel-efficient. But infrastructure needs continue to grow, and legislators have increasingly chosen to fill the gap with deficit spending.
The great advantage of a mile fee is that it can track the road use of any vehicle, even if it does not use fossil fuels. But it also comes with serious baggage, mostly privacy concerns, government persecution, and the impact on rural Americans that are difficult to overcome. In fact, even the modest move in the Infrastructure Bill quickly drew a culture war arrow from Republican MP Lauren Boebert (Colo.) Who called the destination a “rural America tax imposed by the Washington Ring Liberals.”
And that’s one of the reasons many who study transportation say it’s at least a decade away from being a viable option, though the national pilot is a step towards narrowing that window.
“You can’t turn that on overnight – you have a delay of 12 to 15 years. “Said Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a science and technology think tank who chaired a 2009 panel that examined infrastructure funding opportunities.
Federal champions wanted
In fact, it’s been estimated at a decade for some time, in part because several states have had individual pilot programs running for years, but little focus on nationwide implementation. In 2015, Bob Poole, the transportation policy director at the conservative think tank Reason Foundation, told a House Committee that a state VMT system was 10 years away from feasibility.
In a recent interview with POLITICO, Poole gave his latest estimate: 10 years away.
“There’s a joke among us that this is kind of nuclear fusion – it’s been 10 years away for a long time and it’s going to be a lot longer,” he said.
Poole said VMT was politically impractical because of the same dynamic that made raising the federal gas tax a third issue: lack of political will. Instead, Congress preferred “in a more cautious manner” [fund] State pilots, “he said. having regard to a grant program established by Congress in 2015 to fund VMT pilots in some states.
The reason some transportation professionals move away from a gasoline tax and towards a VMT system is because of the changing nature of what Americans drive. In the past, fuel taxes were a reasonable guide to the amount of wear and tear people’s vehicles caused on roads and bridges. But cars are becoming increasingly fuel-efficient and some of them can do without petrol at all.
That means they pay less at the pump – and that means they pay relatively less into the national system, even though they contribute just as much to the maintenance needs of the infrastructure. A VMT would not only cover electric vehicles, which are currently free, but also other vehicles with alternative drives such as natural gas and hydrogen or hybrid vehicles.
Joung Lee, policy director at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said VMT is in a better position in Washington than it was a decade ago, as there have been signs of bipartisan support for the idea in recent years.
“At that point, too, there was a lot of political deliberation over 10 years ago,” he said. “But what I was missing at the time, I think, was the political interest and the willingness to really think about it because it was so new.”
According to Lee, switching to VMT is less about overcoming the bureaucratic hurdles and more about finding the political will at the federal level.
“If people really want to do this and find a way to do this administratively, they will,” he said. “It’s just what that rank is like.”
Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), Senior member of the House Transportation Committee and an outspoken supporter of VMT, said it was “essential to move this to the national level without further delay – take these lessons from state pilots and apply them in a real, nationwide demonstration environment. “Graves said his support for such a move depends on addressing privacy and rural equality concerns, but government progress on these issues suggests that it is solvable problems.
Graves would have been well positioned to switch from his seat on the committee to VMT before the House of Representatives moved to democratic control.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), Another longtime supporter of VMT, said he has used VMT himself in Oregon for more than a decade and sees it as a “long-term solution” for the Highway Trust Fund, but still sees it it’s than 10 years away from widespread implementation.
“It’s not ready for prime time yet and we need to be able to fully replace the gas tax with a fair and sustainable road toll,” he said. “And we have enough time to get it right.”
State test stands
Lack of progress at the federal level doesn’t mean they’re lying idle everywhere – Oregon and Utah have a fully-functioning opt-in Programs that collect miles-based income. Dozens of states have launched similar pilots or studies of the concept to solve the logistical and privacy issues that opponents say make VMT impractical right now.
Some of the problems these government programs are trying to solve: the concerns that VMT penalizes rural residents who have to drive more cars, that it is too expensive to collect, that it is not enough to take gasoline-guzzling cars off the road, and that the Tracking locations would violate driver privacy.
Much of the current work exploring solutions to these problems is taking place within two multi-state coalitions of state transportation officials: RUC West, which has 17 states from Texas to Alaska, and the Eastern Transportation Coalition, which has 17 members along the east coast .
Michelle Godfrey, a spokeswoman for Oregon’s OReGO VMT program and RUC West, said the coalition of western states was born out of “self-preservation” – states wanted to bring VMT to justice but lacked money or political support. Without a federal program, they have become the main advocates of VMT, although none of the coalitions see themselves as lobbyists.
Godfrey said Oregon receives frequent calls from other states seeking advice on how to get started, and extends their aid to the state’s dime.
“We only do this because we want to help the people, and if another state runs a toll program, it lifts us all – it brings us much closer to a national system,” she said. “That is why we are doing everything we can to support any state that expresses an interest in these efforts.”
One of the thorniest challenges with any move to VMT is privacy concerns. Countries with VMT pilots have offered drivers the choice between regular odometer checks, plug-in odometers, GPS trackers and smartphone apps.
Options that might include prosecution proposals will almost certainly raise privacy concerns, with a high potential for being politicized over fears that the government is somehow persecuting drivers.
Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU, said data protection officers will “definitely be watching” to ensure that VMT is set up so that the government does not get the location information of its citizens.
VMT advocates say these privacy concerns are exaggerated.
Atkinson said VMT programs are “actually just the opposite” of tracking systems, comparing the technology to toll transponders that are taped to drivers’ windshields that collect location information anonymously and do not share the information with the government.
Nate Bryer, vice president of innovation at Azuga – which provides data processing services for Oregon’s program and has worked with more than a dozen other VMT pilots – said the data was anonymized and aggregated. Additionally, Oregon requires that it be deleted after 30 days.
A VMT will almost certainly be much more expensive than the gas tax and will require additional bureaucracy and government funds to operate. A 2012 Rand Corporation study found that managing fuel taxes – which are levied at the wholesale level – costs less than 1 percent of revenue, while collecting VMT could cost 5 to 6 percent of revenue.
“When you talk about introducing a national mileage charge, you are now making everyone who drives a taxpayer, so assume that there are either dozens or a few hundred companies liable for them [gas] Tax on well over 200 million [for VMT]”Said Liisa Ecola, senior policy analyst at RAND who contributed to the study.
Other Study by the American Transportation Research Institute found that a national VMT program could cost $ 20 billion annually, or 300 times the state fuel tax. The upfront cost of providing an odometer reading dongle for each vehicle alone could exceed $ 13 billion.
Others worry about the impact a switch to a VMT fee could have on rural drivers, who often have to travel long distances to work or the grocery store and have little or no alternative public transport.
According to a Study carried out for RUC WestWhile rural drivers tend to drive longer distances at the same time, they make these trips less often. While their data varied from state to state, rural drivers totaled no more kilometers than their urban counterparts. Overall, the study – which examined Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Texas, Utah, and Washington – found that rural drivers with a VMT system could end up paying 1.9 to 6.3 percent less than they would on gasoline taxes.
If a driver uses a GPS enabled means to track VMT, the system could also exclude private roads from counting.
Consumer adoption challenges
All of this could make consumer adoption difficult, especially considering that most citizens are unaware that they are even paying a tax to maintain roads, let alone understand a new mechanism.
Trish Hendren, executive director of the Eastern Transportation Coalition, said managing the public perception of VMT is one of the most pressing issues her organization is facing.
Coalition polls found that 70 percent of New Jersey residents mistakenly believe that transportation finance is stable or increasing, and 73 percent were unfamiliar with VMT.
“We have a big job as a field to get in touch with the public and say that you appreciate this transport.