State ponders charging mileage fees

Tom Risch doesn’t mind the idea of paying a transportation fee calculated using the number of miles he travels, rather than the amount of gasoline he buys.

Even though he’s about to drive more than 1,000 miles across country to get home to Pennsylvania.

“They’ve got to get it somewhere,” said Risch, a Kansas University engineering graduate, headed back east in his trusty Subaru. “You’ve got to get from Point A to Point B. However we’ve got to do it, we’ve got to do it.”

Talk of charging drivers based on the ground they cover, rather than the fuels they purchase to get there, is gaining momentum among transportation officials scrounging for money to finance their mounting list of maintenance and construction projects.

Officials know they need to come up with a new way to finance road and highway work, as an economic downturn and the rise of alternative-fuel vehicles continues to drain their budgets of revenues they seek to maintain, overhaul and expand transportation networks.

In Kansas, highway officials already are scaling back plans and even warning that already-approved projects could be dropped, given financial constraints.

Charging drivers based on how many miles they travel, they say, could stem the decline of fuel-based revenues, which have dropped as people turn to hybrids and other increasingly fuel-efficient vehicles to help make ends meet.

“We need to start transitioning to other payment approaches,” said Deb Miller, Kansas secretary of transportation. “The one that’s been discussed most frequently — although it has complications attached to it — is a vehicle-miles-traveled tax.”

Barriers remain

Officials acknowledge that the roadblocks to such a system are high, at least for now.

Today’s technology would allow for such a system, Miller said, but officials have not settled on exactly which approach might work best. Researchers are helping out by enrolling volunteers in pilot programs, to gauge interest and determine how such systems might pay off.

Questions about fairness also remain a concern.

State Rep. Gary Hayzlett, chair of the House Transportation Committee, said that he’d been following and taking part in discussions about such fees for three or four years. He still can’t figure out how residents in western Kansas wouldn’t end up paying more than folks in more urban areas.

“For the people who live in the very rural, far western part of the state, everything we do is driving,” said Hayzlett, R-Lakin. “How do you get equality in there?”

Miller said that privacy concerns also would be key to any discussion regarding a use fee.

“People feel like if we’re monitoring how many miles they’re driving, and maybe even where they’re driving, that’s too much information for a government,” Miller said. “There’s just some work to do, to figure out how to implement it, and how to get people comfortable with it. And that’s going to take some time.”

Federal fuels tax

State Sen. Dwayne Umbarger, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, expects the fee concept to be among options considered this summer, as he joins Hayzlett and other lawmakers in discussing options for a potential new comprehensive transportation program.

The state’s last 10-year program, which generated an average of $650 million a year for projects, formally expired June 30. The next program could look to traditional resources including vehicle registration fees, sales taxes, or even tolls.

But the most likely source — and one that has been counted on heavily in past years — is a tax on motor fuels, he said.

In Umbarger’s mind, the best solution would be for the federal government to set a fixed tax on fuels, then distribute the proceeds to states. That way Kansans living near the state’s edges wouldn’t be tempted to cross a border to buy less-expensive fuel in, say, Oklahoma, Missouri or Colorado.

“At the federal level, if we have an across-the-board increase in motor-fuel taxes in all the states, that takes that dilemma away from us,” he said.

Miller, for her part, would prefer to see governments rely less on fuel taxes and more on usage fees. And that’s only in part because charging a set tax for each gallon of gasoline generates less revenue as Americans get behind the wheels of hybrid vehicles, or even electric cars.

The most important factor: When it comes to any stretch of highway, a vehicle’s a vehicle — no matter where it gets its power.

“Perhaps the Chevy Volt is going to take the world by storm. We don’t even know what other kinds of propulsion technologies are going to come about in the future,” Miller said. “But a car that gets good mileage doesn’t do any less damage to the road or use any less of the road than does a car that gets poor gas mileage.”