By Kevin Pula

State lawmakers gathered during last week's Legislative Summit in Minneapolis for a roundtable discussion seeking solutions to the potential transportation funding shortfalls.

There is real unease among state lawmakers about the future of federal funding for transportation projects across America, an unease that was granted little reprieve when Congress reauthorized Map-21, the federal transportation funding law, until next spring without addressing long-term funding issues.

It is widely acknowledged that because of more fuel efficient vehicles and changing travel habits the current structure of a fixed gasoline tax is unsustainable as a transportation funding source. Some have proposed an indexed gasoline tax. Indiana Representative Ed Soliday (R), however, pointed out that a simple index of the gasoline tax to the consumer price index (CPI) is not a long-term solution because highway maintenance and construction costs are rising at a faster rate than the CPI.

Barb Rohde, executive director of the Mileage Based User Fee Alliance, expressed the need for a new approach to transportation funding, and highlighted the benefits of a mileage based user fee (MBUF). Implementation of a MBUF would involve eliminating or phasing out the gasoline tax and creating a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax that would require those who use the infrastructure most to pay more. The Alliance has compiled a list of locations where MBUFs are currently being discussed or implemented, which can be found on their website.

NCSL’s immediate past president, Senator Bruce Starr (R-Ore.), believes states would have to champion new and innovative methods of transportation funding and financing to create movement at the federal level.

Arizona Senator Steve Farley (D) believes political capital is better spent on long-term solutions rather than the temporary fixes we are seeing currently. Representative Linda Harper Brown (R-Texas) hopes states will be allowed to be an incubator for these policies. Soliday urged others to consider the importance of making the case to the public of the value of a sound transportation system, and to prevent our infrastructure debt from being passed onto the next generation.

One concern raised was the equity of MBUFs on rural drivers. Delegate Mark Sickles (D-Va.) explained how Virginia sought to solve this potential problem by regionalizing sales tax increases and basing the rates off of the need, cost and size of transportation projects for each region, an approach that could be utilized nationally. It was unclear among the participants whether rural users would actually be disproportionately affected by a MBUF, citing the trend of rural drivers to have longer but fewer trips than urban drivers and their tendency to own larger more gas-reliant vehicles.

Other alternatives were discussed such as a hybrid gasoline tax-mileage based user fee system. Issues with a strict MBUF included capturing out-of-state travelers, interstate freight traffic and non-automobile gasoline use. Additionally a weight-based VMT tax—in which a vehicle's weight is used in combination with miles traveled to calculate the tax—could alleviate concerns about heavy freight traffic

Rohde encouraged legislators to not underestimate the power of their voices and that of the NCSL Natural Resources and Infrastructure Committee. Harper Brown agreed and emphasized that legislative resolutions and a collective push by passionate legislators will help the states and country solve this problem.

Kevin Pula is a research analyst in NCSL’s Environment, Energy and Transportation program.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.


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