Pay to drive?

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Print this page by Paula C. Squires

After Virginians go to the polls Tuesday, the discussion changes from rhetoric to reality. How will the state’s new governor and other leaders generate funds at a time of billion-dollar budget deficits and falling revenues?

One idea that keeps popping up is pay-to-drive. That sounds un-American, I know. But think of it a user fee. To drive in certain areas, you would be charged a fee to help maintain the roads. The more congested the road and the bigger and heavier your car, the higher the fee. How would Big Brother keep track? Supposedly, GPS transponders could be placed in cars to record mileage. 

The concept of “road-use pricing” has surfaced in a couple of recent discussions.  The Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization in Washington, D.C., says the federal government should test such a program in a major metropolitan area. Washington, it says, would be the ideal spot.  In a study released in June, Brookings estimated that at an average rate of 9.3 to 15 cents per mile, the approach would generate $2.9 to $4.7 billion for transportation projects —  compared with the $420 million the region annually collects through gasoline taxes.

Put another way, the average Washington motorist would spend $1,100 to $1,900 more annually per 15,000 miles currently driven. The trade-off: less congestion, less pollution, fewer delays. 

If the concept ever flies, Brookings says the system could work like this: the area’s roads would be priced based on traffic. GPS transponders would sort a vehicle’s travel into various toll categories and wirelessly upload the totals at the gas pump when the motorist refuels. The pump would add appropriate road-use fees based on distance, congestion and vehicle type while discounting the gasoline tax. Tourists and other vehicles lacking a transponder would pay the full gas tax.

At least one government entity appears to be giving the idea some thought. Last week the Washington Metropolitan Council of Government’s Transportation Planning Board approved a $400,000 joint study by the Federal Highway Administration and the Virginia Department of Transportation to see if drivers would be open to allowing GPS transponders in their cars.

In its first report card on the state’s infrastructure last month, the Virginia section of the American Society Civil Engineers also mentioned technology and innovation as one of the ways to get ahead in a state where funds are dropping and infrastructure is failing.

So, what do you think? Could road-use pricing work? Are you willing to pay to drive? 



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