The Illinois Department of Transportation is ready to build many more lanes and flyovers at the Circle Interchange, shown here in a postcard from 1963. Posted by Brandon Bartoszek.
Because of vehicles with higher fuel efficiency, slightly less driving, and the gas tax not being changed since 1993, the motor vehicle fuel tax, or “gas tax”, has failed to pay for everything that Congress has legislated that it should pay for. The Highway Trust Fund, which includes the Mass Transit Account, has received several infusions of money from the “general revenue fund” – to the tune of over $60 billion.
But a new report from the Government Accountability Office, the congressional think tank focused on financing, past, present, and future, has made the country take a giant step forward in considering a switch to a fee that more accurately charges usage. The report, like all GAO studies, was commissioned by the House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee*.
The gas tax charges drivers based on their use of petroleum, different vehicles can go different distances on the same amount of petroleum: essentially, some pay less than others for the same use of the road. Addiitionally, the counts of how much people drive has decreased (called vehicle miles traveled, or VMT), yet our demand for funds to maintain and build new infrastructure outpaces the incoming revenues from the gas tax. Lastly, the federal gas tax hasn’t changed at all, sticking to a cool 18.4 cents per gallon (for non-diesel drivers) since 1993. “While the gas tax was equal to 17 percent of the cost of a gallon of gas when it was set at its current level in 1993, it is now only 5 percent” (Streetsblog).
An alternative to the gas tax is to charge people based on how much they drive, a mileage fee. This can be calculated in more than one way, and doesn’t require the use of a GPS system to track where people are going: pay-at-the-pump (or electric vehicle charging station), and prepaid, self-reporting system based on odometer readings.
From the report: “Mileage-based user fee initiatives in the United States and abroad show that such fees can lead to more equitable and efficient use of roadways by charging drivers based on their actual road use and by providing pricing incentives to reduce road use.”
For example, mileage fees and other forms of road pricing such as tolling send clear price signals to road users, and provide incentives to drivers to consider alternatives such as public transit or carpooling which can reduce congestion, vehicle emissions, and overall spending on fossil fuels. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reported that most drivers currently pay much less than the full cost of their highway use, and that mileage fees could provide a better incentive for efficient highway use than fuel taxes do because the majority of highway costs are related to miles driven. In addition, we have reported that if those who benefit from a program do not bear the full social cost of the service, they may seek to have the government provide more of the service than is economically efficient. [emphasis added]
Streetsblog Capitol Hill has more on the General Accountability Office’s report. However, some commenters on that article are pointing out that switching to a VMT tax could be more trouble than its worth, or still wouldn’t cover the full impact imposed by larger vehicles on pavement. The GAO’s report, short of endorsing a switch, suggests further, serious study. Automobile insurance companies have been switching customers to “pay as you drive” (PAYD) charging since the middle of the last decade.
Any highway building or improvement project should be designed in such a way to prioritize and facilitate better transit operations. Photo of a CTA articulated bus on Lake Shore Drive by Kenneth Spencer.
There are several projects planned to happen in Chicago that don’t yet have identified funding:
- Chicago Transit Authority’s Red and Purple Modernization Project
- CTA Circle Line
- CTA Red Line extension to 130th
- CTA and CDOT Ashland-Western BRT
- Circle Interchange project (the preferred alternative proposes three new flyovers over Harrison and Halsted Streets). This project aims to increase the vehicle capacity of and reduce crashes on the roadways in a small area.
- Damen-Elston-Fullerton, three intersection redesign. Same aim as Circle Interchange project.
* This is a subcommittee to the House Committee on Appropriations; it decides how much money to spend. Its full name is United States House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies. While the surface transportation bill allocates money, an appropriations bill actually directs the federal departments to spend a specific (possibly different) amount of money.