One of the least expensive parts of the $1 trillion infrastructure measure signed into law by President Biden on Nov. 15 could have a long-lasting impact on how Americans pay for roads, bridges and mass transit.
It calls for spending $50 million over five years on a national pilot to test and demonstrate technology for collecting a motor vehicle per-mile user fee, something experts variously call a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) fee or Road Usage Charge (RUC).
Its main intention is to “restore and maintain the long-term solvency of the Highway Trust Fund and to improve and maintain the surface transportation system,” according to the approved language on page 197 of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).
The Highway Trust Fund today is supported by a widely despised gas tax, but with electric vehicles gaining popularity, there will eventually be less gas purchased and less tax collected. Today, less than 3% of new cars sold in the U.S. are EVs, but Biden wants that percentage raised to 50% by 2030.
Most supporters of the user fee pilot believe a VMT fee would take a decade to implement nationally, assuming the technology works as expected and doesn’t engender serious widespread privacy concerns by drivers. There are currently about a dozen separate state initiatives to evaluate VMT systems, plus a mandate in effect in Oregon, which helps bolster support for the national pilot.
The national pilot is a “positive step forward,” said Susan Howard, program director for transportation finance at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. The group urges the U.S. Department of Transportation to take into account the ongoing VMT work by various states in conducting its national pilot.
The pilot “can advance the development of national policies, standards and protocols that the state pilots have not addressed,” she added in an email to Fierce Electronics. “It can ... educate the public about the option of a vehicle mileage-based user fee as an equitable way to pay for highways.”
Even truckers are on board with the pilot after years of opposing VMT. “Absent changes to the federal user fee system, the sustainability of the Highway Trust Fund is in jeopardy,” said a spokesman for the American Trucking Association in an email. “We believe there are significant questions about how a vehicle miles traveled tax would be implemented, but this sort of national pilot could go a long way toward establishing such a system’s viability as an eventual replacement for the myriad of taxes that fund the Highway Trust Fund.”
Champions of VMT in Congress include U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, who has used the VMT system in that state, as well as U.S. Rep. Sam Graves, R-Missouri.
The infrastructure act calls on the Transportation Secretary and Treasury Secretary to offer different methods for volunteers to track motor vehicle miles traveled.
Tools could include onboard diagnostic devices, smartphone apps, motor vehicle data obtained by car insurance companies and data from fueling stations. An advisory board will be created that includes a wide body of representatives, including state departments of transportation, academics, advocacy groups including privacy experts and owners of toll facilities.
The act calls for annual reports from the secretaries and others on whether a VMT approach can maintain the long-term solvency of the Highway Trust Fund. The reports must also include insights on “how the privacy of volunteers was maintained.”
With a five-year pilot, it could take at least a decade to implement a national VMT—assuming it all works, according to various experts.
“Implementation of any per-mile tax is likely still years away,” Howard said.
The federal bureaucracy has begun to explain the various programs in the IIJA to benefit contractors and local and state governments. This week, officials posted an information section on the Federal Highway Administration website describing opportunities for cities and towns that will be constantly updated.
State-by-state fact sheets were published on Nov. 18 that include such things as how much each state will receive for a portion of the $7.5 billion to build out the first national network of EV chargers.
In one example, Virginia is listed as receiving $106 million over five years to support expansion of an EV charging network in the state. There is also the opportunity to apply for grants out of $2.5 billion available.