WASHINGTON -- States are looking for new ways of taxing motorists as they seek to pay for highway and bridge repair and improvements without relying on the per-gallon gasoline tax widely viewed as all but obsolete.
Among the leading ideas: Taxing drivers for how many miles they travel rather than how much gasoline they buy. Minnesota and Oregon already are testing technology to keep track of mileage. Other states, including Washington and Nevada, are preparing similar projects.
The efforts are being prompted by the fact that gasoline taxes no longer provide enough money to pay for roads and bridges - especially when Congress and many state legislatures are reluctant to increase taxes imposed on each gallon. The federal tax of 18.4 cents a gallon hasn't been raised in nearly two decades. More than half the states have not raised their gas tax this millennium. Fuel-efficiency also is behind the efforts. Electric-powered vehicles are growing in numbers. In 2009, President Obama set the nation's most aggressive fuel-efficiency standards for new vehicles, ordering a 40% increase by 2016.
"As the (national vehicle) fleet becomes more fuel efficient ... we're going to lose a lot of revenue from the gas tax. If it's not replaced, we're going to see our transportation infrastructure deteriorate," says Joshua Schank, president of the non-partisan Eno Center for Transportation in Washington, D.C. He expects to see a state vehicle miles-traveled (VMT) tax within the next five to10 years.
"We're seeing a lot of interest in VMT as one of the potential solutions to transportation funding gaps that states are dealing with," says Jaime Rall, senior policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The greatest obstacle to a miles-traveled tax has been privacy concerns. When Oregon ran a pilot program six years ago, motorists' major objection was to in-vehicle boxes used to track miles driven, says James Whitty of the Oregon Department of Transportation. "They didn't like the government boxes. They didn't like the GPS mandate," he says.
Oregon is recruiting volunteers for a pilot program starting in September to examine other ways of reporting mileage, including use of in-vehicle technology similar to that used to locate charging stations for owners of electric vehicles.
Other options being considered: People who don't want to use technology may be able to pre-pay for a certain amount of miles or buy an unlimited amount of miles with a flat annual tax.
In Minnesota, 500 volunteers in largely urban Hennepin and mostly rural Wright counties have been testing a system using software installed on smartphones, says Chris Krueger, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. "We can collect trip info and be able to simulate what it would be like to have a mileage-based user fee," she says.
MinnDOT will provide a report on their research when the pilot is complete in December. "We know that eventually there will be an isue of not having enough revenue from the gas tax," Krueger says.
A federal miles-traveled tax is unlikely, Schank says. "So far, the federal government has been terrified of even talking about this," he says. "The federal government needs to take a leadership role in helping states do this.You want to have sharing of information, compatibility across state lines."