Someday Soon You'll Pay for Every Mile You Drive
If you're the type who takes a while to warm up to new things, you might want to start getting used to the idea of paying for every mile you drive. Right now, whether you realize it or not, you pay for roads every time you stop at the pump, via the gasoline tax. But that tax is failing miserably, from a combination of fuel-efficient cars and rising construction costs, and many experts think it will be replaced with a mileage-based fee in due time.
At the moment, Oregon is the only state to have implemented a mileage fee — often called a vehicle-miles traveled fee — but others are considering the plan. A couple weeks ago Florida Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad told some state leaders the days of the gas tax may be coming to an end. He said a shift to a VMT fee could occur within the next 10 to 15 years.
Prasad may want to move up his timeline. Transportation researchers Haitham Al-Deek of the University of Central Florida and Massoud Moradi of the Atkins consulting firm recently calculated how much Florida stood to gain by adopting a VMT fee. Their results were startling: if the state swapped out the gas tax in 2015, then by 2035 a VMT fee would generate at least $37 billion more in road revenue.
Al-Deek and Moradi considered five different funding models in their analysis. The first was the basic gas tax. At its current rate, the tax would raise about $81 billion (in 2015 dollars) by 2035. With the state's funding needs well north of $100 billion by that time, the gas tax clearly won't cut it.
So Al-Deek and Moradi tried four other options, all based around the VMT fee. One was a basic VMT equivalent of the gas tax, in which drivers would pay about two-and-a-half cents for every mile they drove. Such a system would generate $112 billion by 2035.
Three more options were considered: a VMT fee with a rush-hour premium (25 percent), a VMT fee with an urban roads premium (25 percent), and a VMT fee with both premiums (50 percent). The idea with these models was not only to address funding but also congestion, which is worst at rush hour and on city highways. The expected revenues, respectively, were roughly $107 billion, $115 billion, and $118 billion. (The rush-hour premium generates less than the VMT fee alone because its administrative costs are greater, at about 20 percent versus 15 percent).
Here are the 2015-2035 revenue figures for all five systems side-by-side (chart created by Cities based on the numbers reported by Al-Deek and Moradi in an upcoming issue of the International Journal of Sustainable Transportation):
So there's a clear winner: the VMT system with a premium congestion charge for both rush-hour and urban roads. In more basic terms, drivers should expect one day to pay a few cents for each mile they drive, plus a small surcharge whenever they travel during rush hour or through the city.
A lot must be resolved between now and the arrival of that day. There are great political hurdles: matters of privacy chief among them, as well as the general fact that people hate change. But there are also great potential benefits: more revenue for one, but also less traffic, less incentive to drive, and perhaps less urban sprawl. Start getting familiar with that debate, because it's coming to your city and state someday soon.