Rising Oberstar

A lot of influential transport leaders understand why moving to a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) form of road user charging and away from gas taxes is essentially unavoidable. Since this is not understood by the average motorist, few of these leaders speak out about it – fewer still if they depend on votes to keep their job.

One of those rare people, US Representative James Oberstar, D-MN and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman carries the torch for VMT charging in the United States. He recently told White House press secretary Robert Gibbs: “…transportation policy isn’t going to be written in the press room of the White House,” – which I am sure several thousand of us wished we could have said.

The National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Finance Commission (NSTIFC) report “Paying Our Way” and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) call for VMT charging by 2020, and Representative Earl Blumenauer, D-OR, has recommended that pilot programs be included in the upcoming US transportation bill.

But Oberstar asks “Why do we need a pilot program? Why don’t we just phase this in? I'm at a point of impatience with more studies.” He asserted: “There are many suggestions it would take five to 10 years. I think it could be done in far less than that, maybe two years.”

Oberstar warns “if we do nothing … [the highway trust fund] will run $US90B short in six years”. He points out that people spend 40 hours a year in their cars longer than if they could travel at posted speed. “We need to cut that waiting time in half.”

The key social issues he and fellow law-makers grapple with are privacy protection, fair distribution of revenues, and driver equity (there is a fear that rural drivers could be treated unfairly). Oberstar knows “this has to be done in an open deliberative process” and that “it would take years to install the technology on 253M vehicles in America.”

So what’s the difference between Oberstar’s “let’s phase it in” and Blumenauer’s recommendation for pilots? Courage and commitment. Lawmakers know this change is big – ten or more years big. But only Oberstar’s commitment will meet NSTIFC and AASHTO schedules. I thanked Secretary Mary Peters in this column (Feb/Mar 08) for talking straight for the previous administration about the failure of the gas-tax. I applaud Congressman Oberstar, now, for talking straight for this administration.

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