By Mark Wolf
The gas tax isn’t dead, but its actuarial table is in the tank. And the tank is trending toward empty.
Vehicles get better mileage and need less gas. Increasingly vehicles don’t need any gas. Not only is gas tax revenue dwindling, but its purchasing power has cratered because of construction cost inflation and gains in fuel efficiency.
Comes now Oregon, which has a storied history of innovative transportation funding, including the nation’s first gas tax in 1919 (a penny per gallon, earmarked for road construction), the first weight-mile tax for heavy vehicles in 1947 and the first operational road-use charge (RUC) in 2015.
Maureen Bock, of the Office of Innovation in Oregon’s Department of Transportation, referred to Oregon’s RUC as “our little venture in road use charging,” during a session on road use charging at NCSL’s State Transportation Leaders Symposium this week in Denver.
Simply, OreGo, limited to 5,000 volunteers, offers drivers a choice among three vendors, who provide enrollees with a device that measures their miles driven. They are charged a per-mile rate set by the legislature and reviewed every two years. They still pay the state gas tax when they fill up, but get an offsetting credit to their per-mile charge.
Utah’s RUC plan, which takes effect in 2020, offers owners of alternative fuel vehicles the choice of paying a flat fee designed to offset the gas tax or a per-mile fee, which will not exceed the annual flat fee.
Nathan Lee, technology and information director for Utah’s Department of Transportation, asked attendees for a show of hands of how many of their states had tried to increase the gas tax.
Many hands were raised.
“And how did that work out for you?” he asked.
Under Utah’s plan, he said, “If you want to drive less miles, there could be some potential benefit for you.”
Lee addressed critics who contend RUC programs are unfair to rural drivers, who tend to drive more miles. Rural drivers, he said, drive more miles in older cars with lower gas mileage and thus pay more in gas taxes and should pay less under an RUC.
“Our experience is rural benefits now matter how you look at it,” he said.
Low-income drivers, he said, may be the biggest benefactors since they drive fewer miles.
Who controls the data collected on miles driven is potentially a privacy issue.
“Automakers don’t want to be associated with any data collection,” said Lee, noting that app-based mileage trackers would collect data the same way as any other app.
The I-95 Corridor Coalition, which encompasses 16 states along the eastern seaboard (and the District of Columbia) conducted a pilot Mileage-Based User Free trial involving 155 participants who drove more than 450,000 miles from May through June 2018. The coalition has not officially endorsed mileage-based free programs.
“We’re examining it. We’re neutral now,” said Patricia Hendren, the Coalition’s executive director.
The test involved three approaches: plug-in devices with and without location services, and an Android phone app with location services.
The devices with location services offered a number of amenities including trip logs and battery health.
“We learned that out-of-state mileage is critical,” said Hendren, noting that one-fifth of all mileage recorded was out-of-state.
It is feasible to collect tolls with an RUC device, with some challenges. “People aren’t going to want to have multiple devices in their car,” she said.
The dashboard amenities got mixed reviews. Before the test, 57% of users rated privacy of personal data as a high concern, but that figure dropped to 30% after the test.
Hendren said she is leery about a national RUC test.
“We’re just beginning to crawl and public perception could hurt the effort,” she said, adding that individual state projects were a better approach. “We have to take the risk of telling people, ‘Yes, you’re going to have to pay for the system,’ ” she said, adding that it would be more expensive to switch from a fuel tax to RUC fees at the start but that, based on the toll industry’s experience, the cost would come down as projects scaled up.
Oregon’s Bock did have one piece of advice when selling user fee programs to the public: Stay away from calling it a VMT (vehicle mileage tax).
“The public said, ‘That’s the ‘vomit tax.’ ”
Mark Wolf is editor of the NCSL Blog.