Five Percent: Conserve Energy

Climate Change Is Important: Energy Conservation is the First Step

March 8, 2009

Road Use Fee — A Bad Alternative to Gas Taxes

Category: Climate Change,Economics,Transportation – Tom Harrison – 12:15 pm

Funding for Federal and State highway maintenance mostly comes from gas taxes today. But this started posing a problem last summer when gas prices were high and fewer people were driving, and continues now when fewer people are driving because of other economic reasons. And the average fuel efficiency of vehicles used has improved.

The problem is that less gas purchased means less revenues to maintain roads.

So both states and federal agencies are considering a new way of raising revenues, based on miles driven. Some are even adding factors like the weight of the vehicle and where the vehicle is driven to the formula. For interstate highways, a major component of wear-and-tear is from trucks which cause rutting, cracking, and other wear on the road (at a far, far higher rate than a passenger car). Trucks already pay various fees in higher tolls, and higher license fees, but the reality is that their current payment is not proportional to the added costs of road maintenance.

This new approach would require vehicles to be equipped with a tracking device of some sort, kind of like an electronic toll transponder (e.g. ez-pass) in some ways, but also with ability to track location and since fees would still be charged at the gas pump a transaction would need to occur between the vehicle and the pump. It sounds complicated to me.

But the flaw of this method is not in its complexity. The flaw with a use-fee based on miles driven removes an incentive to drive more fuel efficient vehicles, or at off-peak times, both of which are present in the current straight tax on gasoline.

The gas tax alone is far from perfect. Any fee system must recognize that the cost of driving cars and trucks goes beyond the cost of building and maintaining roads — there’s also a large environmental cost. Yes, higher CAFE standards are a good start, and funding for better public transit is great. But let’s make sure the message a fee system sends captures all the costs, including the cost of GHG emissions.

So there are two distinct problems:

  1. Road maintenance, upkeep, utility, and safety
  2. Pollution and GHG Emissions

Neither a fuel tax nor a mileage fee solves both. Before we try new ways to raise money, let’s think about the broader issue. There’s nothing wrong with a mileage-base solution as long as it goes beyond the narrow-view needs of highway agencies.

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