Following on from proposed additional funding for state led RUC pilots is the proposal for what is called the National Motor Vehicle Per-Mile User Fee Pilot (NMVPMUFP!). It is always intriguing how Americans can generate new terms for what could just be called a National Road Usage Charge Pilot (although I’ve also heard that officials in one state didn’t like the acronym RUC because it rhymed with a well-known pejorative).
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act would establish a pilot program to demonstrate a national RUC system. The objectives of RUC are stated as being:
· To restore and maintain the long-term solvency of the Highway Trust Fund; and
· To improve and maintain the surface transportation system.
This is all very well, but there is no way it can restore the solvency of the Highway Trust Fund without setting fees that are substantially higher than what is paid now with the Federal Gas Tax, because it hasn’t been increased since 1993. To make the Highway Trust Fund solvent, it will need to be increased by more than inflation over the next decade or so. It seems unlikely there is much political will for that. To improve and maintain the surface transportation system is laudable, and presumably means raising enough funds to spend on the network. However, it could also improve it by subtly using tools around pricing, particularly around heavy vehicles and configurations, by encouraging more road-friendly configurations. It seems highly unlikely that location and time of day pricing would be explored (which would really make a difference).
The objectives of the national pilot are stated as:
(A) to test the design, acceptance, implementation and financial sustainability of a national motor vehicle per-mile user fee;
(B) to address the need for additional revenue for surface transportation infrastructure and a national motor vehicle per-mile user fee; and
(C) to provide recommendations relating to the adoption and implementation of a national motor vehicle per-mile user fee.
This largely parallels other programmes, which is fine, although the second objective is somewhat tautological. Other interesting elements of the proposal are:
· Multiple methods of measuring miles travelled will be tested.
· Volunteer participants will be sought from ALL states and DC, and even Puerto Rico;
· The distribution of participants will be an equitable geographic distribution (although it is unclear how this will factor in population size);
· Both “commercial vehicles” and “passenger motor vehicles” will be included, so not just light vehicles, but also trucks and potentially buses.
· The pilot will co-ordinate with states pursuing pilots, to consider using the components of their systems or pilots.
All of this seems largely sensible, although one unanswered question is the scale of the proposed pilot program, which seems likely to be in the thousands of vehicles.
It’s unclear whether the pilot will collect money (either from those that pay no gas tax or by crediting gas tax paid), or will just generate mock invoices, but the Bill states that the Secretary of Transportation will set rates for the pilot and the amounts may vary between vehicle types and weight classes (which is dead right for heavy vehicles) to reflect estimated impacts on infrastructure, safety, congestion, the environment, or other related social impacts.
Infrastructure is obvious, but safety seems odd, as nowhere charges differentially based on safety ratings of vehicles. Congestion is only possible if there is location and time of day measurement as well as distance, which limits technical solutions (but is likely to generate huge benefits if feasible). Environment could be reflected in different rates for levels of emissions. Related social impacts is unclear but would need to be explored further. Let’s be clear though, the gas tax does none of this well.
Tools for measuring distance are mentioned in the Bill, specifically:
· Third-party OBD-II devices (plug-in devices, suitable for most light vehicles up to a certain age);
· Smart phone applications;
· Automaker installed telematics;
· Data collected by car insurance companies;
· Data from States that have piloted RUC under the FAST Act;
· Data obtained from fuelling stations; and
· Any other method considered appropriate by the Secretary.
Interestingly this does NOT include commercial vehicle telematics, widely used for truck fleet management. It also doesn’t include more manual options, but of course there is scope to include these obviously.
A Federal System Funding Advisory Board will be set up to develop recommendations related to the structure, scope and methodology for developing and implementing the pilot programme, carrying out the public awareness campaign and developing a report to Congress. That report will be on whether the pilot has achieved its objectives, how protections for participants were complied with and some estimate of administrative costs and equity impacts.
Members of the advisory board will include representatives of:
- State Departments of Transportation
- Entities that led pilots under the FAST Act
- Representatives of the trucking industry (note, these have been vehemently opposed to RUC for many years)
- Data security experts with expertise in personal privacy (though I would have thought it needed legal expertise as well)
- Academic experts on surface transportation systems
- Consumer advocates, including privacy experts
- Advocacy groups focused on equity
- Owners of motor vehicle fleets
- Owners and operators of toll facilities
- Tribal groups or representatives
- Anyone else deemed appropriate by the Secretary
This is potentially recipe for an utter mess, but is demonstrative of the US approach to public policy, which is to consult with whatever interests are seen to be relevant (interestingly it doesn't include railroads, doesn't include automotive manufacturers, doesn't include telematics system suppliers, doesn't include customers of transportation systems, doesn't include bus or coach operators, doesn't include agriculture or business).
This is potentially a BIG deal, and has the potential to be quite some success, but also the potential to fail spectacularly due to complexity, scale and overlapping objectives. It seems likely to be much more appropriate to first undertake a desktop study of options for RUC and to then consider why a pilot is a good idea. There are really only two main reasons in this case, given pilots are underway at the state level:
- To build public acceptability by demonstrating that RUC would be unobtrusive and not cost more than the Federal gas tax;
- To test how a Federal system might interact with State ones.
US$10 million per annum is being proposed to fund this pilot, which is a great deal of money, but likely to be necessary. However it begs a lot of questions particularly around scale, duration and how a wide range of participation will be enabled and ensured. What matters most of all is ensuring that a national pilot can avoid being dominated by negative publicity and negative narratives, which requires a lot of work to be done around communicating objectives to a public that is highly sceptical.
The US needs more rational debate and discussion about how roads are paid for and are managed, and this ought to help. It just needs to be done with a great deal of thought and care, because the world is littered with countries that have tried to advance road user charging on a wide scale (see the Netherlands, UK and Finland) and have failed, due to public backlash.