Taxed to drive anywhere you go?
An upcoming $1.16 million federally-funded program will be exploring the possibility of mileage-based taxation in Pennsylvania and Delaware.
The I-95 Corridor Coalition – which is comprised of more than 100 departments of transportation, port authorities, tolling agencies and other groups along the East Coast – is looking at alternatives to traditional gas taxes as gasoline cars become more fuel efficient and electric vehicle usage continues to expand into the future.
Autonomous vehicles could also pose future challenges to filling state’s gas tax coffers.
"We want to explore the feasibility of a mileage-based usage fee as a long-term solution for funding our transportation system," Dr. Patricia Hendren, executive director of the I-95 Corridor Coalition, told NBC10. "How will we ensure that we will have a well-functioning transportation system in 15 to 20 years from now?"
The program will take 50 vehicles in Delaware and Pennsylvania – with drivers who travel various distances – and monitor driving habits over a year’s time (or longer) starting in 2018.
Planning is in its infancy as the I-95 Corridor Coalition, the Delaware Department of Transportation and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation are still figuring out implementation and how they will pick the pilot program drivers.
"We’re really trying to get as broad a swath of users as possible," DelDOT Community Relations Director Charles "C.R." McLeod said.
The pilot initiative, managed by Colorado-based solutions company CH2M, is funded by a Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) grant under the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act.
DelDOT Secretary Jennifer Cohan told NBC10 many states, including hers, are exploring ways to replace the gas tax.
"What the gas tax used to buy back in our grandparents' day is not the same thing that it's buying now — it's basically a stagnant revenue source," she said.
Hendren says "it’s great" that vehicles are more efficient but that "impacts the revenue available to maintain the system that people are using."
Mileage-based user fees are just one of the possible solutions.
"We are not endorsing a user a fee," she said. "What we are interested in is asking 'is this possible?'"
"It makes a lot of sense to explore these user fees... it will level the playing field," Cohan said. "To continue to do the same thing the way we've always done it just doesn't make sense."
Similar studies have been done in West Coast states like Oregon and California but none have been performed along the I-95 Corridor. The Eastern Seaboard poses different challenges due to older infrastructure, closer concentration of metro areas in various states and numerous toll roads and bridges.
Details that still need hashing out include the different ways drivers in the study will be monitored and whether testers could receive any benefits for their information.
Monitoring drivers is nothing new, however, as E-ZPass and insurance company safe-driving transponders have become commonplace, Cohan noted.
Drivers in the program will be supplying data on driving habits not just on I-95 but also highways like the Schuylkill Expressway and Route 1, as well as small neighborhood roads.
"This is not something that will be limited to the interstates, I want to be clear about that," Hendren said.
The I-95CC also monitors tolling impacts, freight movement and other travel habits across the Eastern U.S. Stakeholders from DOTs, trucking groups, AAA and toll agencies will be part of the discussion about future road funding, Hendren said.
Autonomous vehicles, electric cars and better fuel-efficiency in new vehicles would put big holes into state’s gas tax coffers. The I-95CC doesn’t have exact numbers on how much money will be lost on the current path.
The people behind the study guarantee that no mileage-based tax is coming in the near future and the study could wind up finding that a mileage tax isn’t a feasible option. Additional studies with a larger pool of participants would likely be conducted.
"We owe it to our citizens to start asking what other options are out there," Hendren said. "The relationship between the driver and the vehicle is changing."
The intent is not for Big Brother to be watching you, Cohan said, while noting that any statewide or federal mileage tax would need to be enacted by legislatures. That most likely won't happen for at least a decade, she said.
For anyone who wouldn’t want to participate in a mileage-based tax due to privacy concerns, they could pay a flat fee.
While tolls on roads and bridges have been a longtime user-based fee service (and would likely continue into the future), the idea of a mileage-tax likely won't sit well with drivers.
"The public reaction to this is very negative, as it should be," Hendren said.