With the recent passage of yet another short-term highway bill and gas tax revenues on the decline due to higher fuel-efficiency and alternative vehicles such as plug-ins, states have been exploring other options to pay for transportation projects.
For example, Oregon recently launched its road user charge program (now known as OreGo) and twenty four other states have actively explored the concept over the past several years either through state-sanctioned studies or pilot programs. The idea is to charge drivers by the number of miles they drive rather than the amount of gas they use. But Oregon’s program is voluntary involving a small number of drivers (5,000) within the boundaries of Oregon. And while there are plans to eventually make the program mandatory to include almost all licensed Oregon drivers, one important issue that hasn’t been addressed until now is: how to charge out-of-state drivers?
Enter the Western Road Usage Charge Consortium (WRUCC) – a two-year affiliation of the transportation departments of twelve western states – set up to focus on this problem. Their charter says the group will collaborate on research and development of a funding method that would collect a road usage charge from drivers based on “actual road use.”
While members aren’t required to adopt road user charges in their states, it is possible that many may eventually do so. This could potentially expand the mileage-based fee system to a huge swath of the country with one-third of the population and one-third of the territory.
Members currently include Arizona, Oregon, California, Washington, Texas, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Utah, Hawaii, Idaho and Colorado; another 7 states are eligible to join.
Over the next year, the consortium will share information and resources, review the progress of Oregon’s program and explore the feasibility of a multi-jurisdictional pilot program. The group will also establish best practices as they gain experience and learn from one another and study the implications of a road user charge system on privacy.
To become a member, states’ DOTs must belong to the Western Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and agree to the terms of the Consortium charter.
Funding for the consortium comes solely from member dues of $25,000 and they are allowed to use state planning and research money from the Transportation Pooled Fund Program (a joint program with the Federal Highway Administration and state DOTs) for this purpose. Beyond this financial support, participation by the federal government is minimal.
Experts have long recognized that in order for a distance-based fee mechanism to work there needs to be “interoperability”; a fancy way of saying that different jurisdictions need to be able to share information and agree on methods and procedures to record and report mileage, bill drivers and share revenues.
Experience shows that this new method of paying for transportation can work on a national and multi-jurisdictional scale. Employing 2,650 volunteers from 12 metropolitan areas from across the country, a two-year University of Iowa field study used GPS technology to track vehicle location and an onboard device to record and transmit mileage data to a central billing station. By the end of the study, the technology worked and most participants surveyed had a favorable view of the experience. They were also willing to be billed based on location as well as mileage, contradicting the belief that participating drivers would value privacy over accuracy.
There is also school of thought which says that drivers who live long distances from where they work, go to school or conduct business (so-called “rural drivers”) would rather pay by the gallon than by the mile. So even though it is possible to vary charges based on zip codes or location, adopting road user charge systems will be politically difficult for these consortium members to do given that many of them have large rural-driver populations. But the fact that they are willing to coordinate their efforts and at least seriously consider the option says a lot about the urgent need they feel to find a fairer and sustainable alternative for the gas tax.
Joshua Schanck, President & CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation thinks that the creation of the WRUCC is a big deal. “The creation of a federal road user charge or VMT of any kind is becoming increasingly unlikely,” he said. “So the idea that this multi-state effort could happen is pretty impressive.”
Looking ahead, the precedent set by the WRUCC could influence what happens in the rest of the country. If it ends up successfully developing a regional pilot it could be used as a model for other states and force the federal government to take a more active role.