America needs to replace its motor fuel taxes with a fee for miles driven.
Cars are becoming more fuel-efficient and miles driven are steadily declining. Electric cars use no gasoline at all, so their drivers do not pay for road use, even though their vehicles still take up space on the road and cause wear and tear.
Federal and state fuel tax revenues are increasingly insufficient to build new roads and maintain existing ones.
The most obvious substitute for fuel taxes is to charge road users directly for vehicle miles traveled. There is even a lobbying organization for this in Washington: the Mileage-Based User Fee Alliance.
Mileage-based fees would enable drivers to accurately pay for road use and get the roads for which they are prepared to pay.
With revelations that the National Security Agency is tracking Americans’ phone conversations and emails, it is natural that some are concerned about the possibility of charging drivers for vehicle miles travelled.
People fear that the government will track their location — although many smartphones do this already, whether people are walking or driving.
The GPS (Global Positioning System) is a more sophisticated navigation system but, like the sextants that were used to indicate ships’ positions, they cannot, by themselves, enable vehicles to be tracked.
"Some people have the misunderstanding that GPS sees you," said Bern Grush of Applied Telemetrics. But it is not inherent in the system.
But charging drivers for miles driven does not have to mean a loss of privacy. Devices in cars to measure charges for miles driven do not have to record location or trip time. Car odometers, which measure miles driven, are a simple example.
Each vehicle could have an onboard meter to record VMT. Such meters are already widely used by commercial operators wanting to know how far their vehicles are driven, but this information remains in the vehicle's meter.
GPS-based meters are able to send to billing organizations the total distances travelled on different types of roads without divulging information about trip speeds and locations.
The location data stay in car meters until deleted by owners. Calculation of fees owed would be made by a government or private billing organization, which could be chosen by the road users who would pay in the manner of credit cards being selected by those who choose to use them.
Onboard meters could also be adapted to pay for street parking and tolls, help find a vacant parking space in a city center and get discounts at parking garages.
Such technology is available from companies including Siemens, Continental Automotive Systems, Satellic, eROADS Technology and Octo Telematics.
Payment on the basis of VMT has been successfully carried out in pilot projects in Oregon, the U.S. leader in transportation funding, and on heavy trucks in Germany.
Oregon is laying the groundwork for drivers to pay a “mileage-based user fee” rather than the traditional gas tax.
In 2012, the state successfully completed a Road Usage Charge Pilot Program. It found that providing users options for recording the number of miles travelled (including at least one option that did not use GPS technology so as to assuage drivers’ privacy fears) contributed to the success of the program.
In the 21st century, charging for roads should be the responsibility of state or private providers. There is no longer any logical reason why the federal government should be responsible for funding state roads.
The interstate highway system is virtually complete, and the technology for pricing roads without stopping vehicles is readily available.
As the Highway Trust Fund revenues shrink, most states raising funds for their own roads will have the advantage of being able to provide them more cheaply and more quickly without federal involvement.