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Infrastructure deficiencies lead states to look at mileage-based tax, researcher says

Monday, July 11, 2016

LAWRENCE — As several states across the country have proposed legislation or instituted pilot programs to study mileage-based taxes on driving in place of gasoline taxes, it's an indication of difficulties facing U.S. transportation infrastructure, said a University of Kansas scholar on transportation policy.

Bradley Lane, assistant professor in the KU School of Public Affairs and Administration, is available to discuss issues related to the mileage-tax proposals in several East Coast states and Illinois.

Q: What is the key context for these proposals and the policy discussions?

Lane: The Federal Highway Trust Fund has been insolvent for some time. That means more money is going out to capital and maintenance projects than is being collected through gasoline taxes. This is largely why American roads suffer from the serious deferred maintenance issues that have gained attention in news and among the public for quite some time now. Increasing revenue for transportation is needed, but increasing the federal gasoline tax is particularly unpopular as far as tax increases go, and that's saying something.

Q: What do proponents of a mileage-based tax hope to achieve?

Lane: Transition to a fee that is a function of how much an individual uses the roadway, such as mileage-based tax, has long been discussed as an alternative. There are many potential benefits to taxing travel that aren't achievable through the existing gasoline tax.

First off, you are charging for use of the roadway network the people who use it more, which is only indirectly captured through the gasoline tax. Additionally, depending on how it is structured, you could potentially use usage fees to influence travel behavior to bring about positive social changes, such as reducing congestion and pollution, by pricing usage by time of day or efficiency of the vehicle.  

It is more likely that people might accept a user fee over a gasoline tax if they can be convinced that they can benefit from it through their existing behavior, and if pitched properly, there may be enough people with such travel patterns (or who at least perceive themselves to have such travel patterns) that, after a positive demonstration, they could provide enough of a supportive constituency to facilitate such a transition.

Q: What are the potential challenges for instituting a mileage-based tax?

Lane: With the advent of GPS tracking technologies, mileage-based taxes or fees are thought to be much more feasible. But, as news reports have mentioned, there are many issues with attempting to do so, the primary one being the amount of knowledge and oversight citizens allow the government to have on their travel behavior.

Now, some of this would have positive dividends — criminal and terrorist activity could be much easier to pursue and retrace, for example — but by and large, the American citizenry is quite hesitant to have its government intervene in its privacy.

Such issues with a user fee for transportation are one of a litany of privacy concerns that will dominate the 21st century as the growth of location tracking technologies continues to permeate our everyday lives. For example, most people don't actively realize they are already implicitly accepting GPS tracking of their travel behavior with their mobile phone's location features. The use of pilot programs and demonstration projects such as those described here is an essential component of gaining public acceptance.

To arrange an interview with Lane, contact George Diepenbrock at 785-864-8853 or gdiepenbrock@ku.edu.


Ruth DeWitt, Communications Manager
KU School of Public Affairs and Administration
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