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Tech group calls for national road-user fee

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The federal government should be taking advantage of GPS technology to establish a national “road user charge” (RUC) system for cars and commercial trucks to replace fuel taxes, a tech-based policy group contends.

The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation’s (ITIF) is taking its proposal to Capitol Hill on April 25 to try to influence lawmakers as Congress debates how to pay for highway infrastructure.

According to the plan, “A Policy User’s Guide to Road User Charges,” passing legislation to implement a national RUC system would require a transition period of at least three to five years as automakers develop a standard technology, and as the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) funds the development of a national payment system. “During this period, electric-vehicle adoption will grow, further weakening the gas tax as a sustainable funding method for the highway trust fund,” the ITIF plan states.

The most recent calls for “user-pay” based infrastructure funding – such as a vehicle mileage tax – started in January after the new Congress settled in and fresh debate began over reauthorization of the FAST Act, the-multi-year surface transportation bill set to expire in September 2020.

While House of Representatives’ Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter Defazio (D-OR) has agreed to consider user fees as a long-term option, he supports raising the gas tax as the most efficient way to address the depleting Highway Trust Fund, which is due to run out of money by 2021.

According to the ITIF, while the trucking industry may not be able to pass along all the costs associated with an RUC system to customers in the short run, “truckers should be able to do so in the moderate term and long term if the fees are stable or changed with sufficient advance notice.”

The group also asserted that a government mandated, per-mile pricing policy would create incentives to combine shipments in ways that minimize trip mileage. It pointed to Germany’s heavy-vehicle road pricing system that led to a 10 percent drop in empty trucks on long-distance trips a 7 percent increase in containers moved by train.

The American Trucking Associations (ATA), which supports raising the gas tax by 20 cents over four years to raise $340 billion, rejects user fees as a costly and ineffective way to pay for infrastructure.

After reviewing the report, the ATA pointed out “several unsupportable assumptions” made regarding infrastructure funding.

“It assumes that an RUC, which is really just a new term for a vehicle miles traveled tax, would better align to increased system costs, but this isn’t as simple as the paper suggests,” ATA spokesman Sean McNally told FreightWaves. “For one example, it suggests increasing fees based on the number of axles a vehicle has, yet the more axles a truck has, the less pavement damage it does. This is just one factor that would make it extremely difficult to calculate fair fees for vehicles.”

McNally also said that the ITIF “assumes without evidence motor carriers would easily be able to pass on this new cost to shippers. If these charges can’t be passed on, it would have significant implications, particularly for smaller carriers.”

In addition, the policy paper “entirely glosses over the administrative overhead that would be involved in collected the RUC,” he said. “Much like tolls or other VMT schemes, this new financing tool would require a massive new compliance and collection bureaucracy which is totally unaccounted for in this report.”

John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.