Colorado to Launch Road Usage Charge Pilot Next Month

Colorado residents are now being recruited to participate in a four-month program to evaluate how motorists react to being charged by the mile driven rather than gallon of fuel burned. Sagging fuel tax revenues are the impetus for the pilot program.
November 19, 2016, 5am PST | Irvin Dawid
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The Colorado pilot program, operated by the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), stands out among other mileage fee programs in its size and duration—only 100 volunteers will participate for four months, so if you are a resident and interested in participating, act now.

By contrast, the two other programs in operation—the nine-month pilot in California and the ongoing Oregon program known as OReGO  both call for 5,000 volunteers, and the yet-to-commence Hawaii program calls for over a million participants.

"CDOT says it will offer three basic ways for drivers in the pilot program to track mileage: reporting and recording what the odometer shows or plugging a device into their car that tracks mileage — with GPS capability or without," reports John Aguilar for The Denver Post:

Participants will receive a 'mock' bill from the Colorado Department of Transportation for 1.2 cents per mile driven, just like Caltrans charges participants in their program, though their fee is 1.8 cents. In Oregon, it's 1.5 cents, but it's not a mock bill—money changes hands.

However, all three programs credit drivers with the gas tax they paid, which creates a serious problem: drivers of fuel-efficient vehicles are essentially penalized, as motorist Mike King of Arvada told Aguilar.

He also finds it a tough sell that drivers of more fuel-efficient vehicles — King owns a Prius — would essentially be penalized by the per-mile model because his charges under that system would exceed what he pays now in taxes at the pump.

“You want to do the right thing,” he said. “But I want to continue paying at the pump.”

An alternative approach would be to keep the current 22-cent gas tax [PDF], unchanged since 1993 and add the road usage charge [also called a Mileage User Fee (MBUF) or Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) Fee], thus all drivers pay a road fee and pay gas taxes in proportion to the fuel they burn. Another alternative would be to change the road usage charge to a variable, as opposed to flat rate, "accounting for environmental benefits."

Surprisingly, the Colorado program was not one of the eight projects to be awarded a federal FAST Act grant on August 30 to demonstrate alternative, user-based revenue programs, although it is a member of the Western Road Usage Charge Consortium [PDF] which received funding via the Oregon Department of Transportation. The Colorado pilot is using federal funding from MAP 21, according to CDOT spokeswoman Megan Castle.

Colorado's infrastructure-funding crisis

"Colorado’s share of fuel tax revenues has stagnated over the past decade," adds Aguilar. The tax generated more revenue almost ten years ago than it does today.

CDOT spokeswoman Amy Ford pointed to more fuel efficient vehicles, including hybrids and electric vehicles, as the chief cause, but Carl Davis, research director at the Washington, D.C.-based Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, offered a different reason.

Inflation has been more important than hybrid technology in explaining why tax gas revenues are falling short,” Davis said.

The real solution, at least in the short term, is to index the gas tax to inflation, as has been done in six states. Georgia last year did something even better, he said. Lawmakers there passed legislation that links the gas tax rate to inflation in highway construction costs and to shifting fuel efficiency standards.

Among all states and the District of Columbia, Colorado has the 38th highest state gas tax [PDF]. It's gas tax is more than eight cents lower than the national average of 30.46 cents as of November 1, 2016 per API.

Also in the media:

Related in Planetizen:

Hat tip to Governing.

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Published on Monday, November 14, 2016 in The Denver Post
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