Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told business leaders last week that Congress needs to "show a little political courage" to come up with a way to fully fund a five-year surface transportation bill before the highway trust fund runs out of money this summer. He enthusiastically endorsed the efforts of groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Trucking Associations, and the AFL-CIO to press lawmakers to raise the current 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax.
The gas tax hasn't been raised in over 20 years, and liberal groups like the Center for American Progress are saying that's long enough to wait. CAP's researchers point out, in an amusing recent report, that the dinosaur horror movie Jurassic Park topped box office charts in 1993, the last time the gas tax was raised. On a more serious note, they point out that the gas tax represented 18 percent of the cost of an average gallon of gas at that time. Today, it represents only 5 percent.
But let's not forget that the gas tax is not the be all and end all to this problem. As cars become more fuel efficient, the revenues garnered from gas taxes will diminish, no matter what. Moreover, the disparity in user fees between drivers with gas guzzlers and drivers with hybrid vehicles or electric cars will only grow wider over time. That's not fair to all the drivers, hybrid owners or not, who put wear and tear on our roads.
Transportation experts all agree that the next step after a gas tax is a pay-per-mile system under which drivers will pay a fee for each mile driven on state or federal roads. The problem is convincing the public and squeamish lawmakers that it's a good idea.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., is a big champion of the pay-per-mile system, even though he sponsors legislation to raise the gas tax by 15 cents per gallon over two years. "People don't like the gas tax. I don't like the gas tax. That, of course, is not the issue," he told me in a recent interview.
Blumenauer also sponsors legislation, about which he is far more enthusiastic than his gas tax bill, to establish a federal road usage fee pilot program that would allow states to experiment with different ways to seek payment from their drivers based on the miles they drive, not the gas they use. Oregon already has the nation's first such a pilot program in place, and other states are looking to follow suit. (See my story on Oregon's pay-per-mile system in the most recent magazine.)
"My goal is that Congress would never again raise the gas tax. We would work to replace it," Blumenauer said.
The country as a whole isn't ready for a wholesale shift to a per-mile payment system, but it would be easy for the feds to encourage states to experiment with different pay-per-mile models so that we can be ready in a few years. Oregon is looking at high-tech ways to track mileage through smart phone apps and other gizmos as well as less invasive methods like analog odometer metering systems. Some states could opt for very basic systems like asking drives to pay a fee once a year based on an annual odometer reading. The key to success is giving the people the choice of how to pay, Oregon officials say.
"The technology works," Blumenauer said. "It only costs a couple million bucks to go out and test the technology. If we get four or five states, we can fine tune it."
Blumenauer is hoping his bill on road usage pilot programs will be incorporated into the broader surface transportation measure that must pass Congress this summer. The gas tax, if lawmakers are courageous enough to tackle it, will be handled separately.
And even if the gas tax does get raised to pay for a long-term surface transportation bill, it will not be a permanent fix.
For our insiders: Is the public ready to accept a pay-per-mile user fee system? Does it make sense to encourage experiments with how to charge road-use fees at the state level before attempting a federal program? How long do we have before the gas tax is totally obsolete? Is the public ready to accept a gas tax increase?
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