The federal fuel tax hasn’t increased since 1993, points out Patricia Hendren, Ph.D., the executive director of the Eastern Transportation Coalition (formerly the I-95 Corridor Coalition), a partnership of 17 states and Washington, D.C., that is focused on connecting public agencies together to address transportation issues. And that is a problem. Indeed, American roads and highways received a D in the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg encourages cooperation at the federal, state, and local levels to solve the challenge of funding highways in the face of declining revenues from the gas tax. The $18.7 million Surface Transportation System Funding Alternatives 2020 grants, awarded by the Federal Highway Administration to eight projects across the country in March, hope to explore solutions.
The grant program is part of the 2016 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act and helps states and other entities explore alternatives to the gas tax.
The current round of grant recipients include the Ohio Department of Transportation, which received $2 million for a large-scale public outreach program; the Texas Department of Transportation, which plans on testing and demonstrating a smartphone-based approach with part of its $5 million grant; and the Delaware Department of Transportation and the Eastern Transportation Coalition, which, with its $4.67 million grant, will explore implementation of mileage-based user fees in the D.C. metro area and the seven states of Maine, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina.
The departments of transportation for California, Hawaii, Kansas, Minnesota, Oregon, and Utah also received funding under the grant program.
Gearing up for electric vehicles in Ohio
During the pandemic, Ohio got a sneak peek at what future highway funding revenue might look like with the increasing adoption of electric vehicles. Because of the drop in travel resulting from the lockdown, 2020 traffic volumes were 15.5% down from 2019.
“The motor fuel tax declined in 2020 because there were fewer vehicles fueled by gasoline or diesel on the road. If we do nothing different, a similar scenario will play out with more and more electric vehicles on the road,” says Matt Bruning, press secretary at the Ohio Department of Transportation.
Columbus, Ohio, was the winner of the 2016 government smart city challenge and is evaluating new ways of addressing mobility and increasing the adoption of EVs. The STSFA grant will be used across the state for large-scale outreach to communicate with residents and demonstrate a need for an alternative user-based program. The outreach will also explain how the program will impact Ohioans as compared with the current motor fuel tax system, Bruning says.
“Ohio wants to be a leader in this sector,” Bruning says, “we see multiple technological capabilities — connected, automated, electric, and advanced air mobility — converging into a new transportation network that will be scaled (up) in the next few years.”
Technology will play a key role in this. “Alternative revenue mechanisms will likely use new mobile IT and communications systems platforms to register and assess road user charges,” Bruning says. The charges will also assess connected and autonomous vehicles as well as the impact of EV technology.
Technology as front-seat driver in Texas
Technology will also feature front and center in Texas’ goals as part of its $5 million grant. The project aims to demonstrate the feasibility of a smartphone-based alternative to the current gas tax structure in the Dallas-Fort Worth region.
The state already has experience with using smartphone-based apps for other driving related initiatives. An app called GoCarma, for example, uses Bluetooth technology to automatically verify travelers in a carpool and credits discounts to toll statements.
The smartphone will also be the test focus for a geolocated accounting system for fees.
A cloud-based administration tool can draw virtual geofences around areas and a smartphone app can automatically record when the vehicle moves in and out of these areas. A dynamic pricing schedule can make sure that the rates are equitable and can be priced according to time of day, day of week, peak congestion volumes, and other factors. Unlike many other fee systems, this one does not need hardware in the vehicle, although it does depend on the user owning and carrying a smartphone.
A new framework for highway maintenance in the Eastern corridor
In addition to lacking knowledge of the declining purchasing power of the fuel tax and the changing balance of the fleet on the road, the general public has little awareness of how transportation is funded, says Hendren.
The Eastern Transportation Coalition hopes to reboot the conversation around mileage-based user fees as applied to the Eastern corridor. “Ours is a more complicated environment for travel with out-of-state driving, a lot of toll facilities, and key freight movement corridors,” Hendren says, listing just a few factors that make it difficult to draw up a one-size-fits-all-states approach. The $4.67 million grant the coalition was granted in this round is one of five STSFA grants it has already received. The coalition is uniquely suited to explore larger issues related to MBUFs. “We’re not a single state having to take that kind of political risk, (so) we can really push innovation and (work) collaboratively,” Hendren says. “The harder the issue, the more we gravitate toward it.”
Part of the grant will be used toward demonstration pilots, pilot participant surveys, and data analysis. The data-based approach helps the coalition question common assumptions around MBUFs such as a theory that rural communities will have to pay more under such models. The coalition’s data proved otherwise.
Also under the microscope: a way of transitioning from the gas-based model to a mileage-based one and how to determine rates equitably.
In the end, the coalition hopes to evaluate alternate funding mechanisms through an entirely different angle. “Do we want to look at the future through the lens of the fuel tax?” Hendren asks. “What happens if we talk about the resources needed to maintain a viable transportation system? And use that as the framework to come up with a per-mile rate?”
The answers might be revealing and lay the foundation for a new approach to highway maintenance for the 21st century and beyond.