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Transportation Troubleshooting: Five Steps to Build a Case for Road-Usage Charging

Paula Hammond on June 5, 2023 - in Articles, Column

In the mid-1970s, the average fuel economy of a U.S. passenger car was less than 15 mpg. Thanks to regulations and advances in vehicle technology, that figure today is more than 25 mpg. With hybrid and electric-vehicle (EV) sales growing, we can expect that average to continue rising.

This is a good thing for many reasons, including local air quality, climate change and the financial wellbeing of drivers. But because road and highway work largely is funded by motor-fuel taxes, better fuel efficiency has led to an increasing trend of transportation infrastructure funding gaps in many states.

Looking at Options

States have several options for addressing such shortfalls, including raising fuel tax rates, indexing fuel tax to rate of inflation and expanding the use of tolling. But tolling generally is limited to highways and bridges; tax increases are unpopular; and EVs don’t use any gas or diesel, so no amount of fuel taxes could recover roadway maintenance and repair costs equitably from EV drivers. 

An approach that transportation officials increasingly favor is road-usage charging (RUC). Sometimes called mileage-based or distance-based fees, RUC systems collect fees from drivers based on the number of miles they travel on public roads and highways: a direct user fee. 

My WSP colleagues and I have helped several states with their RUC pilot programs, including Minnesota. In 2022, we designed and managed the Minnesota Distance-Based Fee Demonstration that assessed a per-mile fee on shared mobility-as-a-service fleet vehicles.  

Like Washington, Oregon, Utah, California, Hawaii and other states considering RUC, Minnesota is wisely taking its time with this new concept, starting with focus groups in 2007 to assess how drivers would respond. In Washington, where I was secretary of transportation for six years, we started in 2012 with a legislatively established steering committee to assess the feasibility of RUC; by 2020, a final report recommended the legislature enact a per-mile RUC on a subset of vehicles—especially EVs—as the first step in an envisioned “10- to 25-year transition away from gas taxes to fund the state highway system.”

Overcoming Driver Concern

To date, studies have demonstrated the technology and mechanics of collecting RUC fees are viable. However, the primary reasons for caution and due diligence are negative reactions and concerns from drivers. 

“The three key challenges for road-usage charging are privacy, complexity and rural-urban equity,” says my WSP colleague Mike Warren, managing director of road-usage charge management and strategy consulting, and senior vice president.

Warren, along with our deep bench of RUC experts at WSP, works with states to address these and other objections. Privacy worries, for example, arise because some methods to assess RUC fees—such as those using embedded vehicle telematics or third-party GPS apps and devices—could reveal a driver’s location and driving habits in real time. But Warren assures that such data are anonymized; and manual methods, such as submitting photos of the odometer, can be used by those who aren’t reassured by technology that cloaks their identity.

The rural-urban equity concerns are particularly challenging because of the undeniable fact that many rural dwellers must regularly drive long distances. But Warren points out that RUC fees are being considered to replace motor-fuel taxes, not add to them. 

“Many low-income rural drivers with older vehicles would find a road-usage charge would cost them the same or less than what they pay now in gas or diesel taxes,” he explains.

Five RUC Principles

To help readers who may be working on RUC policy or programs, Warren and I, together with other WSP colleagues, put our heads together and developed the following five principles for building a case for RUC:

1. Educate leaders and the public on how roads and highways are funded now and why relying on motor-fuel taxes is causing backlogs in maintenance, repairs and construction of new facilities.

2. Look at what other states such as Utah, Washington, California and Oregon are doing. The Eastern Transportation Coalition’s Mileage-Based User Fee website is a terrific resource.

3. Reach out to rural and tribal communities with evidence demonstrating that their costs would not go up with RUC and, in many cases, would slightly decrease.

4. Keep any RUC policies clear and straightforward. Some jurisdictions have struggled to gain support by complicating RUC legislation with policies to mitigate congestion and encourage drivers to use transit. 

5. Be patient.



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About Paula Hammond

Paula Hammond is senior vice president and national multimodal market leader, WSP USA; email: [email protected].

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