Recent Transportation Reports Highlight VMT Fees, State of U.S. Bridges, Economic Impact of Road Construction

The fairness of charging motorists a mileage fee to help pay for road repairs… The state of the nation’s bridges… The economic impact of the transportation construction industry… How to win public support for road pricing... The keys to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from freight transportation... All are the subjects of recent reports and studies. Here’s a roundup of those reports, along with an update on public-private partnerships.

CBO Report Compares Fuel Taxes to VMT Fees

The Congressional Budget Office issued a report last month called “Alternative Approaches to Funding Highways” that said a miles-traveled tax on vehicles would be fairer than existing gas taxes in raising transportation revenue and could have the added benefit of reducing driving.

The report said that since heavy trucks and light vehicles are taxed equally, the gas tax does not accurately account for the amount of damage drivers cause to roads nor the congestion caused by drivers driving at peak traffic hours. A fee on the amount of vehicle miles traveled could be configured to charge different rates for different vehicle types and to charge different rates at different hours in different places (often called congestion pricing).

But CBO also notes that talk about implementing a VMT system triggers public concerns about privacy, since data could be kept on where and when a driver travels. The report also acknowledges that the cost of implementing a VMT system will likely be high (it does not estimate the cost) but once it is in place, the returns would soon outweigh those costs. A VMT fee would likely bring in “significantly” more revenue than the gas tax and it would incentivize drivers to avoid peak hours and drive less overall by “discouraging trips for which costs exceed benefits.”

The CBO report was requested by U.S. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad of North Dakota, who has expressed support for a VMT fee as a possible replacement for the gas tax, suggesting such a move was needed due to lower revenues from the gas tax as vehicles become more efficient and rely less on gasoline, especially in the case of electric cars (more on that in a moment).

While the VMT concept has been tested in the state of Oregon and in a 12-area federally funded study by the University of Iowa (the results of which are expected to be released soon, according to a recent news report), some believe more research is needed. To that end, the Rand Corp. has issued another study called “System Trials to Demonstrate Mile-Based Road User Charges” that examines the factors to consider in developing and initiating large-scale testing methods for road user charges based on VMT. The study, which was requested by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and conducted as part of the National Cooperative Highway Research Program, examines potential system design and deployment approaches that should be studied, various capabilities and limitations of implementation mechanisms and the criteria for identifying promising implementation options. It also considers three different frameworks for how trials and the implementation process might be pursued at the state and federal levels and in the private sector.

In addition, a bipartisan bill introduced in Congress last month would allow for the selection of up to six communities to host pilot projects through a U.S. Department of Transportation-run competitive grant program. H.R. 995, introduced by U.S. Reps. Mike Rogers (R-Michigan) and Russ Carnahan (D-Missouri), would create pilot programs to test not only mileage-based user fees but also intelligent transportation system (ITS) technologies, such as electronic tolling and a connected vehicle network. (See our April 2010 brief on ITS)

Meanwhile, in the absence of a VMT fee, some states are proposing new road taxes aimed specifically at accounting for plug-in vehicles already on the road. The Washington state Senate Tuesday passed legislation (Senate Bill 5251) that would require electric vehicle owners to pay a $100 annual registration fee.

Additional Reading: A CSG Trends in America Special Report: Vehicle Miles Traveled Fees, March 2010

T4 America Highlights State of the Nation’s Bridges

Transportation for America, a Washington, D.C.-based coalition of housing, business, public health and transportation organizations, this week issued a report that indicates more federal funding help is essential to addressing a growing backlog of tens of thousands of bridges that need major repair or replacement. The report, entitled “The Fix We’re In For: The State of Our Nation’s Bridges,” ranks states according to their percentage of structurally deficient bridges (Pennsylvania with 5,906 or 26.5 percent of its bridges deficient is number one, Nevada with only 2.2 percent comes in last). It also provides a list of the top two busiest structurally deficient bridges in each state and ranks the 100 counties with the highest percentage of deficient bridges.

One key feature of the report website is an interactive online mapping tool that allows users to enter an address, click on a bridge nearby and see how each of its three main parts (deck, substructure and superstructure) is rated, how often it’s inspected, how old it is and how much average daily traffic it sees. It’s the first time the information has been collected in such an accessible, comprehensive way.

T4 America also offers a series of recommendations for addressing the state of the nation’s bridges. Their recommendations include:

  • Congress should provide states with increased resources to repair and rebuild bridges.
  • Congress should ensure funds sent to states for bridge repair are used only for that purpose.
  • Congress should adopt a “complete streets” policy to ensure that when aging bridges are replaced, they are designed to provide safe access for all who use them.

The report highlights Florida as a success story for their efforts to prioritize repair and maintenance of existing structures and setting repair performance standards.

ARTBA Examines Economic Impact of Transportation Investment

A new report from the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, titled “U.S. Transportation Construction Industry Profile” puts some numbers to the economic development and job creation that can result from investment in the nation’s transportation infrastructure. ARTBA reports that the annual value of transportation construction in the United States will surpass $120 billion in 2010, more than many other U.S. industry sectors, including auto repair and maintenance, advertising and farming to name a few. Transportation construction in the United States supports the equivalent of 3,383,000 full-time jobs.

But the report also points out that enormous challenges are facing the nation’s transportation infrastructure that will directly impact U.S. productivity and economic competitiveness. It points to the deterioration of transportation assets, the loss in purchasing power of the federal gas tax, and the gap between federal revenues for transportation and the investment needs of the system.

The report provides individual economic profiles for each state with information about the scope of their transportation network, significant needs and the economic impact of transportation construction there.  

Other Reports and News of Note

  • The National Cooperative Highway Research Program has issued a report called “Road Pricing: Public Perceptions and Program Development.” The report is designed to help policy makers understand a range of road pricing concepts, determine which may be most applicable in their states or regions, effectively communicate pricing proposals to constituents, develop project plans for best chances of successful implementation, and integrate pricing plans into regional and state planning processes to advance implementation. (See also our September 2010 Capitol Research brief on Tolling and Congestion Pricing).
  • The Commission for Environmental Cooperation, an organization created by NAFTA that focuses on North American environmental and trade concerns, has a new report just out called “Destination Sustainability: Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Freight Transportation in North America.” The report highlights 11 action areas the organization believes progress is needed in to meet challenges to achieving more environmentally sustainable freight transportation. The action areas include: pricing carbon, reducing border delays, integrating transportation and land use planning, shifting to more efficient transportation modes, shifting to lower carbon fuels, increasing the efficiency of transportation technologies, funding transportation infrastructure and pricing its use, greening supply chains and implementing best practices, acquiring data and developing performance metrics, reducing demand for inefficient freight transportation, and improving freight transportation governance and stakeholder networking. (See also our November 2010 Capitol Research brief on Green Freight Transportation).
  • Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed legislation this week that will allow the state to use private dollars to help pay for road and other infrastructure projects, the Columbus Dispatch reported. Under the legislation, House Bill 114, a private entity can now partially or fully fund construction costs for a public infrastructure project. That entity can then reap profits through interest payments from the state, toll collections or other user fees. The state can solicit partnerships for projects or the private entities can propose partnerships unsolicited. Kasich has expressed an interest in leasing the Ohio Turnpike. (See also our July 2010 Capitol Research brief on Public-Private Partnerships).
  • Speaking of public-private partnerships, CSG has recently signed on as a partnering organization for a conference coming up this summer that’s being hosted by InfraAmericas, a website that features news and analysis about infrastructure deals throughout North America. InfraAmericas' U.S. P3 Infrastructure Forum 2011 will take place June 14-15 at the Grand Hyatt in New York City. The forum will bring together infrastructure developers, investors, financiers, state and federal public officials and regional transportation authorities. I’ll have more to tell you about the conference in the weeks ahead. But registration is now open and special rates are available for public sector members. With increasing interest in P3s around the country, this one looks to be a worthwhile addition to your summer conference calendar.