Commentary: Funding Roads by the Mile, Not the Gallon
A version of this first appeared in the Columbia Daily Tribune.
Missouri’s road maintenance funding is on a road to nowhere.
Interstate 70, Missouri’s economic and transportation lifeline, is falling apart. Many other roads Missourians travel on each day also need to be fixed, and they too will continue to deteriorate because the Missouri Department of Transportation is running out of money.
While travel on Missouri’s roads continues to increase (up 12 percent since 2008), MoDOT’s budget has been headed in the opposite direction (down 15 percent in the same period), and that has resulted in a whopping $745 million in unfunded road transportation needs.
MoDOT remains heavily dependent on the state fuel tax (17.4 cents per gallon) for road maintenance, and that’s part of the problem. Because of the improved fuel economy of today’s gas and diesel-powered cars and trucks, fuel tax receipts have declined even though people drive more and put more wear and tear on the roads. Furthermore, drivers of electric vehicles are paying significantly less for road maintenance because they aren’t paying fuel tax.
It’s time to rethink transportation funding. The damage inflicted upon roads is determined by how much drivers drive on them and how much their vehicles weigh, not by how much fuel they consume. A better way to match the damage drivers do to the road with what they pay for its upkeep is to charge by the mile, instead of by the gallon.
Several states experimenting with road-usage charge programs demonstrate how such programs could be implemented. One method to record mileage is by a simple odometer reading. Drivers could self-report their odometer readings as part of the annual vehicle registration process or by plugging a recording device into the vehicle’s diagnostics port. While this method would pose no threat to driver privacy, it would be impractical for those who frequently drive out of state.
A more controversial method is to record precise in-state miles driven by using GPS technology. Current programs in Oregon and Utah use third-party providers to record in-state mileage either through a GPS-equipped plug-in device or a smartphone app. In both cases, the state receives the total miles driven for billing purposes with no location data.
While this poses more concerns for driver privacy, it should be noted that GPS satellites do not track locations. GPS responders, whether in plug-in devices or cell phones, track their location in relation to satellites, but do not necessarily share their location with those satellites. Protecting driver privacy is a serious concern, and the reporting of personal or location-specific data should only be allowed when explicitly agreed to by drivers.
With these first two methods, as drivers pay for their miles driven, they are reimbursed for the gas taxes they paid to travel those miles.
A third method is to use electronic tolling to raise maintenance funds specifically for heavily traveled highways, as many states already do. Drivers can use transponders that send a signal that is picked up at certain points along the road, and payments can automatically be deducted from that driver’s account. Those with concerns about the privacy implications wouldn’t have to opt for a transponder. Instead, cameras on the highway could record their license-plate number and a bill could be mailed based on their driver registration information.
No system is perfect, but in each of the examples listed above, drivers can choose their method of payment and are presented with several options depending on their privacy concerns.
In any case, our current system of taxing fuel usage is becoming less viable. Missouri policymakers should consider solutions already in use in other states to move Missouri’s transportation funding methods in the right direction.