Tolling, Road User Charge Examined at Annual Transportation Conference

Transportation finance and road usage charging are the themes of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association's annual conference held in Portland from April 26 to 28 in downtown Portland. Oregon's road usage charge begins July 1.
April 27, 2015, 9am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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Congressman Earl Blumenauer kicked-off the conference as the keynote speaker, expressing his frustration with both Congress and President Obama in their inability to do anything more than pass patch bills to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent. "We are about to introduce the 24th short term extension of the federal transportation funding bill," he proclaimed, "yet five states, 'red Republican states', have increased their gas taxes this year."

Blumenauer also mentioned that the City of Roses will be opening "the world's largest non-auto bridge in 40 days", serving bus, light rail, streetcars, and pedestrians and cyclists."

The first session dealt with road usage charging (RUC), the adopted term for the 1.5-cent-per-mile fee, also called the vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT) fee and the mileage-based user fee (MBUF). Portland was chosen as the location as the nation's first RUC goes into effect on July 1 in Oregon, albeit for only 5,000 volunteer motorists who will have their state gas taxes refunded.

Jim Whitty, manager of the OReGO program in the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), stated that many participants favor the "maximum" annual fee option, i.e., drive all you want fee for $180, which would appear to conflict with some of the goals of the program. However, it enables participants to bypass mileage-recording equipment.

OReGO was unveiled on Friday, April 24, reports Lizzy Duffy of Oregon Public Broadcasting. "The [1.5-cent-per-mile] rate will eventually be adjusted for heavier vehicles that would be putting more wear on the roads, like trucks or cars driving during rush-hour."

The Beaver State is not alone in pushing road usage charging. "Oregon is a member of the Western Road Usage Charge Consortium (PDF), an 11-state research collective examining a per-mile or road usage charging as a regional policy in the West," according to OReGO's website. "Elsewhere in the nation, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Maine, Delaware and Florida are studying or investigating per-mile charging for roads."

Travis Dunn of D'Artagnan Consulting which recently was awarded a contract to support the WRUCC, began his presentation by placing the figure 57.5 and asking the audience what it meant. He then gave a hint: "How many of you drove here and will submit expense requests?" 

57.5-cents per mile is what the IRS allows for cost per mile driven. That figure has gone steadily up, while the gas tax hasn't gone anywhere in 22 years. In fact, the tax has lost 50% of its purchasing power, according to IBTTA.

The biggest challenge the RUC faces is getting off the ground—that's why all eyes are on ODOT. The challenges are formidable, speakers made that quite clear. But the stakes couldn't be higher as increased fuel efficiency, alternative vehicles and highway construction costs rising higher than the rate of inflation are making even current gas tax increases insufficient to meet present needs. 

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Published on Sunday, April 26, 2015 in Planetizen
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