With gas tax tanking, tolls moving into fast lane

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Print this page by Nick Antonucci

Tolls routinely make headlines in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia as the regions work to mitigate congestion and build needed infrastructure.

Drivers across Virginia — and the country — will see similar headlines in the coming months and years.

The reason?  It’s mathematical.

Since the 1930s, Americans have paid a federal gas tax with every gallon purchased, providing money needed to maintain and build our nation’s roads. Eighty-four years later, the system is failing.

The maintenance, repair and construction costs of a continental infrastructure system have risen significantly over the years. The gas tax hasn’t increased since 1993. It sits at 18.4 cents a gallon, generating roughly $30 billion for costs that exceed $50 billion annually.

Technology advances, too, hinder the federal gas tax’s ability to keep up.

Today’s engines deliver more miles per gallon than their turn-of-the-century predecessors, reducing fill ups. Hybrid vehicles top off their tanks even less frequently, and electric vehicles, sure to grow in number and popularity, pay a total of zero gas tax.

Even if the political will existed in this country to raise the gas tax, new technologies and trends ultimately will render it obsolete.

So the gate will rise on more tolling, though not necessarily in the form of rumble strips, coin collection bins or even E-ZPasses.

Take a look at what’s happening in Oregon for a glimpse at tolling’s new frontier.

Oregon is piloting a system that taxes drivers by the mile to fund transportation projects. Known as OreGo, it’s the first “vehicle miles traveled” (VMT) program in the country. Five thousand volunteer participants pay 1.5 cents per mile when they drive on Oregon roads. They use GPS or odometer readings to record their miles and receive a tax credit for Oregon’s 31-cent-per-gallon gas tax.

California and Illinois are advancing similar VMT programs.

The federal government, too, despite challenging politics, is signaling that it’s serious about replacing the gas tax with alternatives.

Signed by President Obama in December, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act is the first federal law in more than a decade to provide long-term funding certainty for surface transportation. One of the most compelling programs in the Act is Section 6020: “Surface Funding Alternatives,” which directs the U.S. Department of Transportation to award federal matching grants to states that deploy alternative user-based funding pilots.

It’s a call for states to follow Oregon’s lead and experiment with new, user-based models.

Taxing miles traveled is one approach, but tolls also could be implemented for travel during specific times of day or using specific facilities (roads, bridges tunnels), or a combination of all.

Priced-managed lanes, for example, which charge a variable toll to use uncongested lanes during peak travel times, are operating successfully today in Northern Virginia and in more than a dozen cities nationwide.

No matter what form they take, user-based funding alternatives treat the U.S. transportation system as a utility or service. Motorists pay a fee to use it, much like they pay a fee to use their smartphones, watch cable TV or power their homes.

Not only could these alternatives generate fair and sustainable revenue tied to use, but they have the power to change motorists’ behavior. If motorists pay a fee according to the time they drive, some may begin to question whether the higher fee they face for driving during rush hour is worth it. To save money, they might choose to delay their trip by an hour or select an alternative route. If charged by the mile, a motorist might choose to walk to nearby destinations instead of driving.

There are, of course, valid concerns. Privacy is the big one. Who has access to the data user-based programs generate about when and where a vehicle is operated? The Department of Transportation? Insurance companies? Law enforcement?

And what about rural vs. urban drivers? Or long-haul truckers vs. regional commuters?

Ensuring fairness and preventing data breaches demands that local, state and federal organizations, along with the private sector and consumer protection groups, work together closely.

Motorists share privacy concerns but back the coming changes. A nationwide survey conducted last month by my firm, HNTB, indicates that 65 percent of Americans would support the use of road-usage fee options, such as VMT.

hat’s an increase of 15 percentage points from a similar survey conducted in 2014.

With increasing public support, technology’s inexorable advance and a gas tax on empty, more tolls are coming. And with them, safer infrastructure that better meets Virginia’s — and the nation’s — mobility needs.

Nick Antonucci is vice president and mid-Atlantic District leader for HNTB Corp., an infrastructure solutions firm in Arlington.

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