Thursday 13 September 2012

Atlantic Cities considers VMT, but doesn't look beyond the Atlantic

Eric Jaffe at Atlantic Cities concludes that Vehicle Mileage Tax (distance based road user charging or mileage based usage fees depending on your preferred choice of terminology) is a good idea which is technically viable, which surprises me, although he got there after making a bunch of mistakes and also did the usual “if it didn’t happen here it doesn’t count” narrow-mindedness of thinking no one else in the world has thought of it before Americans have. Yes, even ignoring the truck weight/distance taxes already in four states, the Swiss has been doing this electronically since 2000. At some point American journalists might notice.

So what was his train of thought?

The article says that a field study by the University of Iowa showed it could work. Perhaps fair enough (although the distance measurement is arguably not the biggest issue), but there are real operational systems in the world today in several countries, which is probably a better indicator that something works than a university field study. 

He also claims that “Mileage data can be captured via GPS”, which would be a surprise to any engineer who worked on GPS. GPS is a system that purely takes signals from satellites to measure the co-ordinates of a specific device. No GPS satellite captures anything, at all. However, GPS devices can be adapted to record and measure distance, but let’s not keep making the tired mistake of thinking GPS satellites pick up anything from people’s handsets on the ground. The “Spy in the Sky” myth keeps needing to be swatted. 

He rightly points out that a system can be integrated with fuel purchases so that payment of VMT can offset payments of gas tax (Oregon’s trials proved that), although the accounting involved is a little more complex than that. 

The article then highlights how VMT is likely to reduce driving, largely because motorists become acutely aware of the cost of each trip as it is taken. This is intensified if pricing varies by time of day and location. Fairly basic acceptance of the pricing principle of course, but it also should recognise that at some times and places it could be cheaper than paying a gas tax.  I suspect that it isn't what he has in mind, but it's important to give both sides of this.

However, he concludes with some concerns, such as how VMT “does nothing to encourage green cars”. Yet again, the Atlantic Ocean remains a psychological barrier to understanding reality. In Germany, its “VMT” type truck tolling system does just that, by having differential pricing according to the emissions rating of vehicles. It is entirely possible to do that for cars, and in Germany it has incentivised changes in the truck fleet towards lower emission vehicles. 

Another concern raised is VMT “creates a rate-equity debate with rural and possibly even suburban drivers who lack reliable transit options”. A debate yes, but who argues that fuel taxation is unfair to those in rural areas or without other modal choices? Shouldn’t the argument be about paying for what you use, not relating to extraneous factors? How prices are set needs to be based on economics. 

Finally he says “any mileage system would also need to consider how much of its intake should go toward public transportation”. Yes, what is done with revenue is critically important, but that is a wider debate. Better road pricing could conceivably abolish the need to subsidise public transport altogether, but this article wasn’t really about economics.

In conclusion, the article is positive as it throws into the mix of public discourse support for an idea that is highly controversial and seen by many as “just another tax” due to the high level of distrust of government in the US. However, it would be helpful if it had been able to address some key myths around privacy and promoted a shift towards more equitable and efficient pricing of roads – linking what is charged to what is used and spent on them. For now, I fear it will polarise those who argue for less tax against those who simply want to restrain car use for environmental reasons – with little or nothing about economics.

The only way there will be public support for such a major change in how people pay for roads is if they can be convinced that they will be better off with a change, and it will be fairer overall.  This article didn't make that case, it made the case that it can be done, not enough for the case that it should be done.

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