Are We Slinking Ever Closer to a Universal Road User Charge? Part 2—Congress: NMA E-Newsletter #550

Last week, in Part one of Are We Slinking Ever Closer to a Universal Road User Charge?, we examined the efforts of various groups that are currently pushing road user fees onto the American public. (A road user charge or RUC is also commonly referred to as the Vehicle Miles Traveled Tax or VMT Tax and the Mileage Based User Fee or MBUF.)

Transportation planners and elected officials, including Congress, see dollar signs when they discuss openly how a Universal RUC program would make a difference in funding the Highway Trust Fund. The Fund, which has relied on fuel taxes that have not been raised since 1993, always seems to be teetering on the edge of insolvency because lawmakers keep raiding this money earmarked for road infrastructure.

The handwringing has only just begun in Congress.

Oregon Democratic Representative Peter DeFazio, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, noted at a February committee briefing that he plans to include a national VMT pilot program in the next infrastructure bill. He stated, “It will be easier to do that for commercial vehicles, maybe move to a weight/mile tax. I think there is some promise there.”

A few weeks later, top Republican on the Committee, Missouri Representative Sam Graves stated that he supported the adoption of VMT as an alternative to pursuing fuel taxes to pay for infrastructure. “I don’t want to do both. I don’t want to have a gas tax then layer on top of that a VMT. I want to eliminate the gas tax and go with VMT.”

If our elected officials have never had the courage to adjust for inflation and raise the national fuel tax since 1993, how can they be expected to have the fortitude to protect motorists from being taxed and surcharged entirely out of their cars with a package of fuel taxes, RUCs, and an expansion of toll roads?

The complexity of running an RUC program would be much more expensive than the present system, and there have been no numbers put forth yet on revenue expectations for the federal government.

Meanwhile, the pressure on Congress to change how it funds infrastructure has not let up.

In June, the Transportation Construction Coalition and Americans for Transportation Mobility (a Chamber of Commerce funded Group) pooled resources and started a social media campaign with constituents whose elected officials sit on the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance Committees (the folks responsible for developing funding mechanisms for transportation). The two key priorities pushed in the message:

  • Provide a permanent, dedicated, growing, user-fee based Highway Trust Fund revenue stream that supports the transportation investments by the President and Congress.
  • Ensure expanded Highway Trust Fund resources in a national infrastructure package that facilitate projects with long-term regional and national economic growth while creating jobs.

Also in June, the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus on Capitol Hill pushed forward its plan of action on infrastructure. In its report, Rebuilding America’s Infrastructure, the caucus did not mention an overall RUC but instead focused on indexing fuel taxes and phasing in a federal gas tax increase. The group did propose a VMT tax for automated vehicles and charging an annual registration fee for electric and hybrid electric vehicles.

Everyone can agree that we have an infrastructure problem. Caucus member Michigan Representative Elissa Slotkin said it best, “Fixing our crumbling roads and water infrastructure is not a partisan issue—it’s something we should be able to come together across party lines to address.”

Another side issue with ‘Vehicles Miles Traveled’ is the actual designation. Not only are bureaucrats and elected officials who are supportive of Vision Zero efforts, working daily to price us out of our cars, but they are also working diligently with real estate developers to get us into multi-family living spaces instead of single family homes that many of us worked many years to buy and maintain.

Zoning and transportation planning have long been married in a delicate dance using a metric called “Level of Service” or LOS. Designed to measure vehicular traffic congestion at intersections near project sites, LOS is a tool used to determine if road designs should be changed due to the impact of real estate development.

By July 1, 2020, California local municipalities will be prohibited from using the LOS metric, and instead, must apply a Vehicle Miles Traveled analysis. Measuring VMT would treat traffic congestion and the act of driving itself as an environmental impact. VMT calculations would multiply the number of vehicle trips by the estimated number of miles driven per trip. LOS often requires wider roads to ease traffic concerns, whereas a VMT approach often mitigates impacts through other mobility measures such as carsharing, transit, and expanded pedestrian/bicyclist rights-of-way.

For details, check out the NMA blog post: Level of Service: Measuring Traffic Congestion which first appeared in the NMA Foundation’s Driving News Magazine Spring 2019 edition.

Are We Slinking Ever Closer to a Universal Road User Charge?—Part 3 will focus on what is happening with RUC/VMT Taxes at the regional and state level.

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