Road User Charge Proposed as Way to Fund Highway Improvements

As the trucking industry and anti-tax groups battle over whether higher fuel taxes or tolls is the best approach to fund highway building and repairs, other interest groups are starting to push a national road-user charge.

A national road-user charge would ensure that all U.S. vehicles, including trucks, contribute their fair share of infrastructure costs, according to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. RUCs employ technology to levy fees based on the number of miles a vehicle is driven.

A federal fuel tax funds most infrastructure building and repair. Drivers pay a tax of 18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline and 24.4 cents for diesel. And states charge their own fuel taxes.

COST TO MODERNIZE

The Transportation Research Board estimates it will take $45 billion to $70 billion a year for the next 20 years just to modernize highway surfaces. But federal and state governments spend about $20 billion to $25 billion a year, according to the organization.

The American Trucking Associations wants to help meet that shortfall by raising fuel taxes by 5 cents annually over four years, a total increase of 20 cents per gallon.  That would raise $340 billion over 10 years.

truck at toll booth

Anti-tax and limited-government advocates support tolls as a way to fund infrastructure improvements. (Photo: Flickr)

Anti-tax and limited-government advocates such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Reason Foundation argue that tolls are a better approach. Technology allows for a customer-friendly, efficient, low-cost tolling system that should be palatable to truckers, according to Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation. Money collected through such a system would be used only for road expansions and repairs, he said.

Others argue that tolls and road-user charges will make increasing sense because they will capture electric vehicles, which avoid fuel taxes.

One benefit of deploying a GPS-based RUC system “would be the ability to better align the costs heavy trucks impose on the transportation system with the prices they pay,” the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation said in a recent report.

PLAN FOR TRUCKS

Under such a plan, trucks above a certain size and weight would need onboard units to identify the vehicle’s location and the time of day and week it’s traveling. They also would have axle-weight sensors to measure the truck’s weight per axle.

Trucks would pay road charges based on total miles driven and other factors. Those include:

  • Truck-axle weight. Heavier trucks would pay more.
  • Emissions per mile. “Dirtier” trucks would pay more.
  • The types of roads on which trucks travel. Trucks traveling on roads not designed for heavy-duty operations would pay a premium. Truckers could also be charged extra for driving on metropolitan freeways during rush hours, the ITIF study said.

The ITIF, based in Washington, D.C., is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institute. But its proposal is not without controversy.

“After reviewing ITIF’s report, ATA believes it makes several unsupportable assumptions about infrastructure and infrastructure finance,” the American Trucking Associations said in a statement to Trucks.com.

Truck South Grand Island Bridge, New York

The American Trucking Associations opposes the Road User Fee. It “isn’t a bad new idea — it’s a bad old idea,” says an ATA statement. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The ATA disputes several claims in the ITIF study, saying that additional axles cause less, not more, damage to roadways. The ATA also said there is no evidence that “motor carriers would easily be able to pass on this new cost to shippers.” The trucking trade group said the proposal “entirely glosses over the administrative overhead that would be involved in collecting the RUC.”

“All in all, the Road User Charge isn’t a bad new idea – it’s a bad old idea with a sloppy, unconvincing coat of paint,” the ATA statement said.

TESTING

It is, however, an idea that is the subject of experiments as vehicles become more fuel-efficient, decreasing funds raised through gas taxes. The I-95 Corridor Coalition, representing agencies from Florida to Maine, plans a mileage-based user-fee pilot. California ran its Road Charge pilot program for nine months starting in 2016. Its 5,000 participants included 55 heavy-duty commercial vehicles.

California has made no decisions about an RUC. But a State Transportation Agency poll found that 73 percent of the pilot’s participants thought a road charge was more fair than a fuel tax. And 61 percent were very satisfied with the concept of road charging.

Among the California truckers who participated in the pilot, “there weren’t a lot of concerns,” said Eric Sauer, senior vice president of government affairs for the California Trucking Association. He cited one exception: “If they were a construction-type delivery operation, tracking those miles off-road was problematic.”

SMALL SAMPLE?

Saur also said the sample size for commercial trucks was very small, and more research into RUCs is needed.

The California Trucking Association participated in the California pilot, Sauer said, “because the organization and its members want to be at the table. They know this is being looked at and talked about nationwide, and they want to see if this type of technology or transition to a road charge could work for the trucking industry.”

As President Donald Trump meets with Congress to discuss the details of what is expected to be a $2 trillion infrastructure package, “one of the things on their agenda is the gas tax,” said Marty Wachs, UCLA professor emeritus of urban planning. “Eventually the federal government is going to have to do something.”

Trucks.com April 23, 2019
An increase in the fuel-user fee would equitably – and economically – fund needed infrastructure repairs.

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