ANALYSIS: Plan would charge trucks a new toll for every mile traveled

By David Tanner, Land Line associate editor | 8/2/2011

Call it a toll, a mileage tax or a user fee, but authors of a new report say the best way to pay for transportation is to charge trucks and other vehicles by the mile. No matter what you call it, the plan would essentially turn every road into a toll road, and that is cause for concern for small-business truckers.

The authors of the proposal, Jack Schenendorf and Elizabeth Bell, say the new fees would be levied in two ways – one for all vehicles including trucks to pay an extra fee on interstate highways, and the other would exclusively charge trucks to use all other roadways.

Schenendorf, who recently spoke with Land Line Now on Sirius XM, is a former chief of staff for the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He now works as an independent consultant and lobbyist in DC.

In 2008, Schenendorf was vice chairman of a federally appointed commission that studied the needs of the interstate and national highway systems and recommended that Congress increase funding levels for transportation.

“We think raising the motor fuels tax is probably the best choice now, but if we can’t do that, are there other alternatives? Are there other ways to pay for the increased investment?” he told Land Line Now.

“And it’s in that context that we came up with two ideas. One was an interstate user fee and the second is a federal motor carrier user fee.”

Schenendorf said the interstate user fee would work similar to E-ZPass or other electronic toll systems. Vehicles would be equipped with transponders and would be charged the new user fee as they entered and exited the controlled-access interstate system. It would be easy to implement this system for cars and trucks, he said.

The motor carrier user fee would work differently, using GPS-based fleet management systems to apply the fees specifically to trucks on other national, state and local roadways.

OOIDA and small-business truckers have cause for concern about any extra charges on top of what they already pay to run the nation’s highways. Another fee on an existing roadway is a doble tax to truckers. Equally concerning is the method of collection because not all trucks and trucking companies are created equal.

“It’s making some lofty assumptions about the trucking industry,” says OOIDA Director of Legislative Affairs Ryan Bowley, “that all trucks have fleet management systems.”

“Most of our members, while they might use a GPS as a car owner would use a GPS, they don’t have a fleet management system because they don’t have a fleet. We’re definitely concerned about these assumptions.”

But the most concerning is the potentially open-ended nature of the fees and the way they could be adjusted to keep up with the needs of the roadway systems. The report says that fees would fluctuate depending on things like state wish lists and projects of national significance.

“From a trucker’s perspective, the minute you pull out to go pick up your load, you’re basically going to be paying a toll,” Bowley said. “If you’re deadheading, you’re paying a toll.”

Consider what a trucker would pay on a turnpike – once for the fuel tax, which would not be repealed or replaced under the Schenendorf plan, once for the toll, and once more for the new user fee.

“From a trucking perspective, as we all know, truckers generally get left holding the bag for tolls. There are no guarantees that the trucker isn’t going to get left holding the bag for the new user fee,” Bowley said.

Schenendorf’s white paper is titled Modernizing U.S. Surface Transportation System: Inaction Must Not Be an Option. In addition to increasing revenue for the Highway Trust Fund, the plan is quite specific about where it would be spent.

The interstate fee would stay with the interstate system and the truck user fee would stay with those roads and improvements to freight movement, according to Schenendorf.

“So the truckers would know that every penny they’d be paying would go to the movement of freight,” he said.

That’s a small consolation for the truckers. According to the Federal Highway Administration, the Highway Trust Fund takes in about $36 billion per year at the present time. Shares then get paid out using a formula for state and federal highway and bridge programs.

OOIDA does agree that the aging highway and bridge systems could use more investment, and even significantly in many cases. But the Schenendorf plan calls for up to $82 billion per year, more than double what is being collected and distributed now. That money has to come from somewhere, and the Schenendorf plan is big on trucks shouldering the load.

The authors are not shy about saying their user fees would be in addition to fuel taxes and other fees already going into the Highway Trust Fund.

“These would be in addition to the taxes being paid into the Highway Trust Fund, so that would free up the existing money in the trust fund to make the improvements to the other parts of the federal highway system, the national highway system roads, and other arterials that would be eligible under the program as it works today,” Schenendorf said.

He says the proposal is a conversation starter. And it certainly is.

OOIDA leadership says truckers won’t go for a plan that essentially turns every roadway into a toll road and without any consideration to reduce other taxes or fees.

“The interstate system is important, but they’re risking pricing it out of reach so families are unable to use it and it becomes cost-prohibitive to move freight in this country,” Bowley said.

Land Line Now Staff Reporter Reed Black contributed to this report.

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