Monday 18 April 2016

Illinois proposal for vehicle mileage tax well intentioned but needs rethink. UPDATED

UPDATE:  Senator John Cullerton has announced that he is suspending his proposed Bill SB3267. I hope that it isn't the end of the idea, as there would be more merit in thinking more about policy and considering a pilot that looks at all of the issues and concerns raised in the past few days.

Bloomberg reports that Illinois Senate President John Cullerton has proposed both a 30c/g increase in the state's fuel tax and the introduction of a vehicle mileage tax.  The proposal for the latter is well intentioned.  As with many states, Illinois faces both the revenue challenge of declining gas tax revenues and the equity problem that those who can afford a Tesla or another new electric car end up not paying for the roads.

A 30c/g (7.9c/l for those of us used to metric measures) is a lot to swallow, and probably is a negotiating position to seek a smaller increase, but even if it progresses it, that isn't sustainable.

However, the proposal for a 1.5c/g distance tax (with three concepts to implement it) has a number of flaws, and unfortunately the scathing coverage the proposal is getting in some of the Illinois media reflects this. 

The proposal

All vehicles from July 2017 would pay a mileage based tax, at 1.5c/m.   They would also pay the state gas tax, but have to apply for a refund at regular intervals (some reports say annually).  There would appear to be three options to pay:

- GPS-based on board unit that measures distance travelled on roads in Illinois and transmits this data to a back office to bill the user;
- Odometer linked on board unit that measures all distance travelled and transmits this data to bill the user;
- A flat fee of $450 for a year, equating to 30,000 miles.

What is good about the Illinois road user charge proposal

Firstly, the concept on its own is worthy of further study and to pilot.  The mere fact of suggesting it is positive.   Secondly, the concept of user choice is incorporated into the proposal, which is a good thing.  That is key to building acceptability in Oregon and now the California pilot.

What Illinois could do better?

Don't set rates now.  A rate should be based on what it is meant to be paying for.  That means first establishing an expenditure plan based on addressing deferred maintenance and network rehabilitation and high value capacity and safety projects, then allocate those costs among road users by economic analysis.  Some costs are fixed and should be common to all vehicle classes, some are weight based, which means the heaviest vehicles pay the most, some are capacity based, which means it should be based on road space occupancy.   Set principles for rate setting, don't just identify a rate that looks like a whim.  

Refund the gas tax at time of purchase:  Few are going to believe they should apply for a refund of gas tax and accept paying a new tax.  This is not only going to be unacceptable, but it is unnecessary.  Oregon did pilot a "pay at the pump" model that it did not progress, but could mean anyone using a technology based approach could be set up to pay gas with the tax refunded.  

In due course, Illinois could simply scrap the gas tax and create a new option for out-of-state visitors (also available to locals), which could be a trip pass or a time-based pass (the annual pass is a version of this, a one month and a one week pass could also be issued).  Scrapping the gas tax will prove that Illinois genuinely wants to change how vehicles are charged rather than tax them more.  However, having instant refunds would make it much more acceptable.

Address the privacy issue better: The "Big Brother" "government knows where you are" narrative is an easy one and could have been better deflected by deciding that any option involving technology will not be run by the state, and wont transmit location data from the device.  The fact that even the odometer option is seen by some as "invading privacy" demonstrates how woeful communications have been on this.   The GPS option. as in Oregon and various countries around the world, can be managed by a private company with the on board unit using location data just to assist in calculating the charge (and only charging data gets transmitted).  Failure to address these concerns well could kill this idea.

Set up a pilot:  There are reasons Oregon and California are doing pilots of distance based charging.  They aren't to prove the technology, or to prove that it can be done.  There are many years of experience proving this.  It is to get the public involved, get feedback from users and understand what works for people.   Announcing a pilot is different from a Bill that imposes a new system of charging from on high.

Increase confidence in how revenues will be used:  Many people think money raised now is wasted, and so consideration of reform as to how Illinois roads are funded and managed can not only save money, but also improve confidence in any new system of user pays.   Introduce state wide asset management systems, establish road management on a more commercial, user oriented basis and think "outside the box".  Look at what Australia is doing to optimise life-cycle management of roads, do better with what revenue there is now, and be world-class in how you manage roads and spend the revenue raised.  There are claims that Illinois has "outlandishly high workers’ compensation costs and prevailing-wage requirements", these should be tested.

What has been the media response?

The Daily Herald in Chicago editorial is one of the most positive pieces saying it makes some sense given fuel efficiency.  It is sold on the idea as a way of managing congestion, but I'd urge caution on that.  Although that could be a long term option, with one way of charging by distance, it is not the objective here.  It is difficult enough convincing people of the importance of a new way of paying for road use without adding congestion pricing to the mix.   It proposes that there be weight based charges to make up for the lack of a gas tax, which has merit for broader economic reasons.   It also wants environmental signals, which could exist too (they do with heavy vehicle systems in Europe), but let's not be distracted by multiple policy goals.  

Jim Muir in the Southern Illinoisan says it is "tax and spend", presuming that there is no refund in gas tax.

WSIL3 TV interviewed people who were worried about privacy.  Would they be so concerned if none of that data ever left the vehicle?

Jacksonville Journal Courier said people wouldn't be impressed, but makes the disproven claim that rural people drive further so would pay more (disproven by research in Oregon).  

Even TimeOut Chicago claims it is anti-environmentalist, presumably because cars should get to use the roads for free?

The Illinois Policy Institute is scathing about the idea, which is unjustified.  It is nonsense to suggest that distance based road charging needs a large bureaucracy.  Plenty of jurisdictions do this nimbly and efficiently, and most recently by having competitive private sector service providers collecting charges as a service.   Privacy is an issue, but I would have thought a think tank looking to promote personal freedom and prosperity would want solutions that embrace user pays and a more market oriented approach to providing roads.


Good on Senator Cullerton for advancing the idea, but it needs some rethinking and reworking because it looks fairly clear that the public will reject it outright without a pilot and without a wider consideration of how to reform road funding, charging and management in Illinois.  

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