Paying our way

July 2012 » Departments » COMMENT
Bob Drake

Fact: The federal tax on fuel that for more than 50 years has helped pay for design, construction, and maintenance of the nation’s transportation infrastructure is a rapidly diminishing source of revenue. And the chance is pretty slim that Congress will anytime soon — if ever — add even a couple pennies to the 18.4-cents-per-gallon tax, which has not been increased since the early 1990s. We desperately need a more consistent, long-term funding source for highways and bridges.

Technology is enabling several options that show promise for supplementing or replacing — in part or in whole — federal fuel taxes for funding transportation infrastructure, as well as for gaining greater efficiencies in use of our existing infrastructure. According to a recent report by Pike Research, “Smart Transportation Systems” (www.pikeresearch.com/research/smart-transportation-systems), “The widespread availability of high-speed networks, both fixed and wireless, along with the ability to embed intelligence in physical objects throughout the urban environment and the diffusion of mobile devices that can send and receive real-time vehicle or infrastructure information, is driving the adoption of smart transportation systems in cities across the developed world and in major emerging economies. ... These deployments are likely to continue to grow even as public infrastructure spending flattens or even declines in many cases.”

Building on intelligent transportation system (ITS) technologies, some organizations and states are investigating use of a vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT) tax — a true user fee. With vehicle-installed GPS and wireless technologies, perhaps one day VMT user fees even could be equitably divided between state, county, and local transportation departments based on actual miles travelled on each type of road. While in theory this seems to be the fairest way to impose a user fee, privacy concerns make this a difficult solution to implement.

A simpler technology that already has gained wide acceptance is electronic tolling, although application is limited to specific highways and bridges.

Under the Federal Highway Administration’s Interstate System Reconstruction & Rehabilitation Pilot Program, efforts currently are underway in Virginia and Missouri to toll sections of I-95 and I-70, respectively. In February, North Carolina received conditional acceptance into the program, pending further study, as the third and final state, with plans to toll I-95 within its borders. Additionally, several projects across the country are developing high-occupancy toll lanes to ease congestion.

In HNTB’s America THINKS 2012 Highway Survey of more than 1,000 Americans, given three choices, 61 percent of respondents preferred tolls to get funding for the nation’s interstate projects and 23 percent preferred a VMT user fee; only 16 percent preferred increasing the federal gas tax.

Eventually, Americans must accept that transportation infrastructure is not free; we all must pay our way, whether travelling to a neighborhood store or across the country. In the Summer 2012 issue of Transportation Point Tolls (www.hntb.com/sites/default/files/issues/TP-13-2012.pdf), published by HNTB, Jim Ely, vice chair of toll services for HNTB, predicted, “The next decade will be one of the most exciting and dramatic in tolling’s history.”

One wishful thought: As alternative transportation infrastructure funding such as VMT and tolling gain acceptance and implementation, is it possible that some time in the future we could be spared the periodic, painful political battles such as those we currently are experiencing related to passage of a federal transportation bill?

Bob Drake
bdrake@zweigwhite.com


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