Perfectly Shapeable Charge

Chris Davis, over at blogs.discovery.com recently wrote one of the more intelligent pieces on the contentious subject of road pricing. As evidenced by the comments made to his post, one of the problems with this discussion is the number of variables that need to be considered.

  1. The move to improved or alternate power plants makes the gas-tax less useful every day. Mary Peters put it best: “Relying on the gas tax is like relying on cardboard to keep the rain out – the longer you use it the less it works.”
  2. Taxing the resource (oil) we want people to use less of in order to fund our roads is plainly shooting ourselves in the foot as is funding hospitals solely on cigarette taxes.
  3. Are we trying to fund roads? Then we can tax anything you’d like such as property tax or sales tax as is now done in some jurisdictions (a great congestion-builder, by the way).
  4. Are we trying to manage congestion? Then tax by time of use, distance driven and place of use (TDP).
  5. Are we trying to reduce emissions? Then tax road use by vehicle type/size.
  6. Are we trying to move people to electric cars? Then tax gas AND roads.
  7. Are we trying to balance the damage from trucks? Then charge trucks more (to be reflected at retail anyway; sorry, Virginia, no free lunch).
  8. Are we trying to open highways for more effective commerce? Then charge cars more.
  9. Are we trying to get people to use transit or walk or bike or telework or move closer to work? Then charge by time of use, place of use, and distance driven.

If you want to do all of these things in some reasonable measure, then Time, Distance and Place (TDP) charging is your ticket – your only one. The technology now available to do this can be made private (even anonymous), and can handle parking, insurance, driver rewards and credits and a dozen other user-attractive features, so that the cost of metering for road-use charging can be reduced to the current cost of collecting gas tax.

The fact that the gas tax is unsustainable is incontrovertible. We can patch it with an increase. We can even index it to the cost of road build and maintenance (that would be an astonishing achievement wouldn’t it?). But as soon as we reach 10% fleet electrification (which is coming in the decade after next – if not sooner), then what?

The gas tax simply will not work much longer. Far-sighted organizations like James Whitty’s ODOT are asking “How can we prepare for that?” ODOT’s and Jim Whitty’s work has been pioneering as has Puget Sound’s and Matthew Kitchen’s. Is this work perfect? No. Does anyone have the perfect answer? No. Can we diddle the gas-tax to get there? Not for long. Can the current administration side-step this? Maybe.

Can the next one?

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