European vs American Road Pricing view

The idea of metering road use using GPS-based telematics to determine time-place-distance-based use fees – ostensibly to replace the failing fuel tax – has received a lot of government attention over the past two decades. Because governments predominantly think about funding and sustaining the transportation system, they generally view such a collection system as a critical and dedicated system.  Too bad.

As recently as three years ago – two years before the ignominious collapse of its nation-wide, all-eyes-watching, road-pricing plan – the Dutch started to play with the idea of adding a few extra features. These Value-Added Services (VAS) were seen mostly as sugar-coating to make the medicine a bit easier to swallow.

Here is the image-metaphor used in a presentation overviewing the German Toll Collect system at a Spring, 2010 conference in Oslo (less than a year ago!). The slide title was: Value-Added Services: only the cherry on the cake.
Figure 1. European View/Government View
Nothing I have written in the past 8 years approaches the instant clarity of this accidental condemnation of the government view. Only a political cartoonist could match this. This view, necessitated by the need to replace or augment fuel duties and manage demand, leaves nothing for the motorist to desire. Who wants the maraschino cherry, if someone else gets the cake? It is this perception of the governments’ intentions that makes road-use charging so unappealing – so unacceptable – to motorists.

I predicted recently that US thinking in the matter of RUC would soon overtake EU thinking. That time is arriving sooner than I thought.  In the Fall of 2010, a report was prepared for AASHTO by Paul Sorensen and some colleagues from The RAND Corporation. I am guessing that upwards of 100 people had some input into this study.

A key stated purpose of the study on which the report was based was to determine who should bake the American version of the cake in Figure 1, The Federal Government or the State Governments.  To Sorensen’s credit, he included a third option, in section 6.2.3, reviewed here, a new approach, in which the paradigm of tax-centricity is replaced by one of service centricity. The artist who created the Olso conference slide might draw it as in Figure 2.
Figure 2: American View/Industry View

Big difference. If we bake the services cake right, we could gain acceptance, build a massive telematics industry, make cars safer, make trips more efficient, and much more. Maybe the Americans will get this right where the Europeans have led, but (so far) failed.