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October 20, 2014 1:45 AM, EDT
More States Expressing Interest in Mileage Tax
By Michele Fuetsch, Staff Reporter

This story appears in the Oct. 20 print edition of Transport Topics.

While Congress continues to punt on the nation’s long-term road-funding crisis, interest in vehicle-mileage taxes to augment or replace fuel taxes is growing among states.

Membership in a group created last year to explore the mileage-tax alternative — the Western Road Usage Charge Consortium — reached 11 states this summer.

The driving force behind the consortium’s growth, however, is not Congress’ failures, said Reema Griffith, executive director of the transportation commission in Washington state and a founding consortium member.

“It’s obvious that the gas tax is not going to bring in the revenue that we need long term,” she said. “We’ve got to switch to a metric that allows us to capture that revenue by . . . how much you’re using the road, as opposed to what fuel you’re using.”

States are all looking at the same trend data that show gas-powered cars reaching 30, 40, 50 miles to the gallon and electric and hybrid cars becoming more available and affordable, she added.

Oregon has said it will begin its second mileage-tax pilot program next summer. In September, California became the latest state to approve a pilot program, which will start in 2017.

Washington lawmakers have authorized planning for a pilot, although no launch date has been approved. Nevada did a two-year mileage-tax pilot launched in 2009.

It’s not surprising states are leading on the mileage-tax issue, said Emil Frankel, a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and assistant secretary for transportation policy in President George W. Bush’s administration.

“I remain pretty confident that, over the long haul, we will convert to a more direct mileage-based user fee, but I think that’s going to happen as the gas tax did, from the ground up,” Frankel said.

“Little by little, states will consider it, [and] it’ll become more pervasive and, eventually, like the gas tax, I think it will get adopted at the federal level.”

Jack Basso, an expert in transportation funding and chairman of the Mileage Based User Fee Alliance, agreed.

“The states will be the ones to incubate this thing and probably move before the federal government ever does,” Basso said. “If you look at history, gas tax and everything else, it’s been generally that way.”

Oregon in 1919 became the first state to tax gasoline and for more than half a century has taxed truckers on mileage not diesel purchases. The first federal gasoline tax was in 1932.

Basso, a private consultant and former official at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said mileage-tax talk is not confined to Western states and that the alliance he is chairman of made presentations in Florida and Minnesota last year.

When his state joined the consortium this summer, Idaho Director of Transportation Brian Ness said it did not mean the state would necessarily seek a mileage tax.

“Idaho should explore every alternative to the gas tax to determine which is most viable for Idahoans,” he said.

Meg Ragonese, a spokeswoman for the Nevada Department of Transportation, said Nevada is part of the consortium of states because it is exploring a sustainable transportation funding source.

“It’s something that we feel is very important to continue to collaborate and evaluate methods,” Ragonese said.

Other states in the consortium are Montana, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, Texas and Hawaii.

The trucking industry has been largely skeptical of mileage taxes.

Last month, for example, after California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed a bill authorizing the mileage-tax pilot program,

California Trucking Association officials met with state Transportation Secretary Brian Kelly to talk about the advisory committee that will help plan the pilot.

“We have asked to be on that committee, and he said that he will make sure that we are involved and on the committee,” said Eric Sauer, CTA’s vice president of policy and government relations.

“We wanted to make sure that the trucking industry was at least part of the process to be able to weigh in with our concerns,” Sauer said.