TRB study: Public has negative opinion of mileage-based tax

By Tyson Fisher, Land Line staff writer | 12/11/2015

With more than half of states exploring a vehicle-miles-traveled fee in lieu of the current gas tax, the Transportation Research Board conducted a study to get a pulse on public perception of a road usage charge. TRB’s findings: The public has an unfavorable opinion of VMT fees.

In a study titled “Public Perception of Mileage-Based User Fees,” the TRB drew from three sources of information to gauge how the public feels about the proposed tax: qualitative studies, public opinion surveys and media stories. TRB found that across all three sources, the public had a negative opinion about VMT fees.

A total of 33 poll questions asked about support for VMT fees without specifying replacing the gas tax with those fees. Results found an average of 24 percent supported such fees. At best, support was 50 percent and sank as low as 8 percent. In the context of replacing the gas tax with VMT fees, support was about the same at 23 percent.

Privacy was among several issues the public had with VMT fees. In the qualitative studies, participants were concerned about technology that would collect information on travel time and location. People were also concerned about odometer-based systems, which are considered to be less invasive. Study participants expressed distrust of the government’s ability to run a mileage-based tax system. The costs of a VMT program and billing errors were also questioned.

Another issue raised was fairness. Those with fuel-efficient vehicles found a VMT fee to be unfair since they would pay more compared with a fuel tax. Conversely, others found VMT fees to be fair for the same reason: All drivers would pay similar taxes to support infrastructure. Another fairness issue was raised in the context of negatively affecting lower-income drivers, rural drivers, truckers and commuters.

Media stories discovered other issues, including the loss of incentivizing fuel-efficient vehicles through a gas tax. Information gleaned from the media also revealed issues with households paying large lump sums if VMT fees were periodically charged as opposed to the small, frequent amounts of a fuel tax. Some stories pointed out the possibility of “congestion-pricing,” which would unfairly add costs to commuters with inflexible jobs.

Some supported a VMT fee for the same reasons many opposed it. The study points out supporters were in favor of drivers with fuel-efficient and electric cars paying their fair share of road maintenance costs with the road usage tax. Other supporters considered a VMT fee a solution to the problem of funding infrastructure.

Within the study, the researchers noted that “the public know virtually nothing about” transportation revenue. The study brushes off public opinion as uninformed, stating “people do not form their opinions about (VMT fees) with a good understanding of how that revenue option might compare to a fuel tax option.” Researchers went on to claim that respondents of surveys expressed their preferences about something “they likely don’t understand.”

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association is opposed to any mileage-based user fee.

The study was conducted by researchers at San Jose State University under the National Cooperative Highway Research Program. According to its website, NCHRP is administered by the TRB and sponsored by the member departments of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, in cooperation with the Federal Highway Administration. Individual projects are conducted by contractors with oversight provided by volunteer panels of expert stakeholders.

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