President Barack Obama is planning to spend the week pushing Congress to replenish the Highway Trust Fund, which is responsible for supporting most states’ transportation costs. But as Congress debates whether to take action, the U.S. Department of Transportation warns that the purse will run dry by the end of August, putting the conditions of roads, bridges and paying for infrastructure projects at risk.
At the center of the debate is how Congress intends to inject future revenue into the fund, which relies heavily on a federal gas tax that has not changed since 1993. The White House argues more funding will only provide a temporary solution, as more Americans embrace environmentally economic vehicles, and lawmakers will need to start thinking of alternative ways to pay for transportation.
One idea is gaining traction in Oregon, where a pilot project is rethinking how we pay for driving altogether. The Vehicle Miles Traveled fee places the burden of paying for road repair on those who are using it rather than concealing it in a fuel tax.
“In 2001, we passed a bill that basically says the legislature needs to find an alternative to the gas tax, recognizing that the gas tax is a declining revenue source,” Oregon state Senator Bruce Starr told the Washington Post. “So we went through a process to look at options. The road-user charge ultimately was the place we settled.”
Drivers have five different mileage-based payment options — including installing an odometer to using GPS through a smartphone to track miles — and are charged a base rate of 1.56 cents per mile driven, but the amount can vary depending upon the type of vehicle (heavy trucks are charged more) and whether or not they’re driving during rush hour.
Drivers can also receive a monthly bill detailing their driving activity, akin to a utility bill, which can help drivers change their driving habits — reducing the amount of road expenses.
The experimentation paid off. Oregon’s pay-per-mile program is not only the first of its kind across the country, but the pilot exceeded expected gas tax earnings by 28 percent, CityLab reports.
Though Oregon has explored more than one concept since 2001, Sen. Starr points to help from the private sector as part of the pay-per-mile program’s success.
“The big piece of that is really because government’s not the ones that are accomplishing all of the recording of the mileage. It’s done by a private-sector company,” he said. “Yes, we have to be able to audit it to make sure that we’re getting paid what we need to be getting paid, but any of the data is not being held by government. I think that the private sector is well able to help to identify how many miles people drive and then collect the dollars from the public and remit them to the [Department of Transportation].”
This year the state passed a bill that will see 5,000 drivers phase in the per-mile charge as opposed to the gas tax, while Sen. Starr expects more partnerships to emerge with other Western states interested in the program.
Though it make take some time to change the federal system, Oregon’s ingenuity demonstrates that Congress should be thinking beyond prolonging a “transportation cliff.”
MORE: Oregon has an Indiegogo Campaign to Give Portlanders a Huge Off-Road Bike Park