Six Key issues the US must address in moving from gas tax to VMT charging

This blog also appears in National Journal Online

The events of February 20 to 26, 2009, in the US have launched a significant debate for Americans regarding its critical surface transportation system. This debate will have a lot of low points such as the Lahood-Gibbs-Oberstar shouting match that helped sell newsprint for a couple of days and fewer high points such as the release of the final report of Congress’ National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Finance Commission.

The debate will cover a surprising number of issues. While the debate regarding what the Fed should do and what the States should do is critical, I side-step that because I’d be out of my depth and because I believe we can achieve a full switchover to VMT without rewriting the Fed-State relationship in any fundamental way. So conveniently blinkered, I think these are the six issues that matter, in order:

Privacy. Some Americans are frankly afraid of GPS and any other mysterious technology. We will not be able to explain it away for everyone. Some Americans who are not afraid of GPS are anxious not to risk its misuse. Who would fault them? Some Americans understand it is possible to have a system that does NOT track motorists but so hate taxes (or new charges) on principle that they will latch onto the privacy argument as a red-herring. Attacking privacy fears with “Don’t worry” or “ ‘They’ already know your credit card and cell phone” will serve to make these Americans, who in aggregate are possibly in the majority, only more resistant. We need to acknowledge that, correct or not, the big brother perception is powerful. We need to legislate that no VMT meter can permit location (tracking) data out of the vehicle, without specific (signed?) permission of the registered vehicle owner and its operator(s). This is already in progress in the EU. To get this underway, now, keeps the debate about VMT charging on the table and says: “first thing is to kill the big-brother possibility”.

Entitlement and Fairness. The arguments around entitlement to mobility, whether some roads are a free access public good, whether taxes should be paid by people who use roads directly with a private or commercial vehicle vs paid by people who use the road but do not drive a private vehicle, or exceptions for certain vehicles and persons, and so on, are often meritorious. We do not want to make anyone worse off. But we might. So how do we address that? There are credit schemes and tax schemes and assistance schemes to help people move or shift modalities. What are they and how will they work? If they were understood, anticipated, and in place, some people would prepare.

Funding vs Management. If VMT is only for funding transportation, then it would be applied in a particular way – in fact the argument “just increase the gas tax” would not be out of place if we could ignore an impending shift in energy source. But if VMT is also for congestion cessation, then we need to build education programs – for politicians as well as for us plain-folks – because I promise you an amazing number of people really don’t understand demand management. And if VMT charging is to be pitched for green reasons, I am further concerned. There is a lot of green print and intention – stated preferences – but when a majority of people are asked to pay, revealed preferences are otherwise. And if the argument is for National Security – well, I’ll leave that one for the reader. And when you put them all together, as needs doing, you have the debate from hell.

Access vs Environment. “Access”, here, is not just “entitlement” in sheep’s clothing. To be realistic, we need access to other places whether work, worry, wink or worship. Moving people and things from one place to another leaves a footprint. Yes, many of us would like to see that footprint minimized. Do we have a common definition of what footprint we will tolerate? Saying “a 50% reduction” or “an 80% reduction” or “the 1990 level” really makes most of our eyes glaze over. So many of the “agreements” we have made to date are not only toothless, they are also with plans to get there.

Roads vs Transit. Some drivers say “Put my money into roads, please” (makes sense). Urban planners say “We need better transit so put some money there, please” (correct). Then we get hard-to-follow economic arguments that moving a commuter from car to bus makes the road less congested so the motorists left driving should be happy to fund transit (uh, ok…). If balanced transportation options are good for everyone, why are motorists so damned nasty to cyclists and transit vehicles? The math on transport modal balance and management fills trucks. But most people still think their mode is the one-true-mode. Where else have I heard that rhetoric? I don’t think this problem can be worked out in a town-hall or in the newspaper. This will need urban planners with some selling skills and some politicians with testicular courage. And hopefully, what works will be copied by more of the same types. But beware of failure, though.

Cost. Considering how tough those five are, why even mention this one? Well, if we cannot shift the tax base from gas to road consumption at a cost close to that of collecting fuel taxes 1.01% according to the NSTIFC report – as opposed to the 20% it takes to collect the German Truck tolls – then we don’t have a deal. There are ways to get to 1.7% according to the same report. Can you name one? The Europeans can’t.

Instead of trying to read the Lahood-Gibbs-Oberstar crystal ball and divining what Obama’s really thinking, we need to start cracking some harder issues.

No comments: