By Mark Wolf
Phoenix—Oh, gas tax, what a long sweet run it’s been.
You were so generous. We would come to you for everything. Roads, bridges, repairs, maintenance. Your pockets were deep for concrete, asphalt and steel.
We’ve gone steady for years, but we need to talk. There’s someone else. It’s not you, it’s us. We used to guzzle. Now we sip. Or plug in. Your gas takes us farther, so we don’t need as much of it. We need more from this relationship than you can give us. We need to see other people.
In "Running on Empty, An Alternative to the Gas Tax," an opening-day session at the NCSL Capitol Forum, transportation experts on mileage taxes and tolling offered insight into how states can augment the beleaguered gasoline tax.
"We don't drive over Republican roads or Democrat bridges," said moderator Representative Andrew McLean (D-Maine). "It's not one of the sexiest topics, but it's like the furnace in the basement. People only notice it when it's broken."
Last year, Maine formed a commission to see how it was going to solve a $200 million funding gap in a state with more than 2,700 bridges.
"No one likes to pay more taxes," said McLean, whose state is exploring tolling and mileage use charges.
Both those options were in the spotlight during Tuesday's session.
James Whitty, of D’Artagnan Consulting LLP and the developer of Oregon's road use charge as a program manager with the state's transportation department, explained Oregon's program and how the idea has spread with pilot projects of varying magnitude in 11 other states.
After some pilot tests, OReGO became operational in 2015. Key factors in the program, Whitty said, are that motorists choose either a government or private sector data collector and account manager, as well as their mileage reporting method. OReGo is an open system with published standards and business rules and motorists' personal data is protected by statute. The road usage charge rate was 1.5 cents per mile in 2015 and was aligned with the gas tax and raised to 1.8 cents for 2020.
The top issue road tax advocates faced was keeping motorists' data private.
Whitty projects a broad mandate for road-use charges in the coming years, particularly as electric vehicles' share of auto sales continues to grow and the vehicles' telematics will make compiling road use data easier.
Thirty-five states have some form of tolling, said Baruch Feigenbaum, assistant director of transportation policy for the Reason Foundation.
Feigenbaum's overview of national tolling said the practice provides a revenue source for construction, maintenance and operations and follows the users-pay/users-benefit principle used for 100 years. It also ensures transportation does not have to compete with other priorities, he said. Tolling has advantages over the gas tax because it charges motorists for the exact roadway used and can help manage congestion.
Tolling can be adjusted by day or time of day based on a fixed schedule or day of the week and congestion, according to Feigenbaum's presentation.
More efficient collection methods have evolved "from your grandfather's toll road," when state-of-the-art technology was throwing quarters into a basket.
"All-electronic tolling reduces the cost of collection to 5%," he said, adding that there has been a reduction in accidents by 75% compared to toll booths.
However, allowing a person with one account to use toll booths in multiple states is still a work in progress, he said.
Mark Wolf is editor of the NCSL Blog.