It is no small irony that so much federal money is being devoted in various ways to climate change projects that will do nothing to curb Americans’ love of driving or to reduce the costs associated with it.
The country road system receives a large part of its funding by tax on gasoline, and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act allocated billions of dollars in additional federal spending to improve our highways and subsidize the purchase of electric cars. In theory, both new laws should help address climate change. Newer roads should reduce stop-and-go traffic, which increases emissions, and electric vehicles will eventually cut motor vehicle gasoline emissions.
But in fact, building smoother and wider roads is often encouraged more, not less, driving. And of course, more driving means more pollution, more accidents, more congestion and more pavement damage. At the same time, the gas tax revenues providing highway funding will decline due to electric vehicle adoption.
The good news: Buried in the 2,700 pages of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is the money to try a simple, relatively inexpensive and much better way to fix many of the problems of our congested, crumbling and climate-unfriendly highway system.
Known as a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) fee, it would charge drivers for every mile they use the road. By doing so, it can encourage us to drive less often, avoid peak travel periods and drive less harmful and less polluting vehicles.
To understand the importance of the solution, let’s return to the problem. In 1956, America began to build its more than 40,000-mile federal interstate highway system, ensuring that the nation’s roads would be the lifeblood of travel. However, as more motorists and truck drivers have used the roads, the annual costs of accidents, congestion, vehicle pollutants and pavement damage have exceeded a trillion dollars.
By focusing on miles driven, the VMT fee can be adjusted to address all social costs associated with driving. It may be increased during peak travel periods and in more populated areas, reducing congestion and improving safety. It can be varied depending on how green (or not) the vehicle is and can charge drivers according to the pollution their vehicles emit.
And it can be designed to reduce the considerable damage caused by heavy trucks. The petrol tax encourages truckers to improve fuel efficiency by relying on vehicles with fewer axles – which increases road damage. VMT fee can be varied depending on how much weight is carried by each axle, which reflects the road damage trucks cause on the pavement.
Advances in technology make VMT fee for cars and trucks feasible; mobile device can be installed on all vehicles that can track time, location and mileage, and the information can be sent to managers who send confidential charges to road users. Regarding privacy concerns, many of us already use similar technology to pay motorway tolls.
Establishing a VMT fee would achieve the government’s goals for much less than those large spending programs. The congestion charge would spread traffic throughout the day, reducing public pressure to build expensive lanes or roads to expand peak-period capacity. The axle-weight charge would reduce pavement damage, lowering maintenance expenses. And the emissions burden would encourage travelers to use electric vehicles, accelerating the transition to a clean energy economy without large subsidies.
A VMT fee can also help prepare the road system for the future. Travelers and shippers will almost certainly eventually use autonomous electric vehicles that operate efficiently and safely without a driver to reach their destinations. Those vehicles could communicate electronically with other vehicles to avoid collisions and even with the highway infrastructure to maintain a smooth traffic flow. To a visionary policymaker, VMT fees would generate funding to upgrade the highway infrastructure, thereby reducing congestion and pavement damage that hinder autonomous vehicle operations, and boost demand for autonomous electric vehicles.
The most timely argument for a VMT fee is that the gas tax will have to be replaced eventually as the adoption of electric vehicles is growing and revenue generated from the gas tax shrinks. Fairness requires that electric vehicles be charged for the emissions they generate from consuming electricity as well as for their congestion and accident costs.
Despite all the potential benefits of a VMT fee, a huge obstacle remains to its more widespread use: the nature of American politics. Politicians have historically favored inefficient, large-spending programs because it is politically more attractive to spend money on building roads and attending ribbon-cutting ceremonies than charging road users for the social cost of their transportation.
Therefore, I was not surprised to learn recently that the Department of Transportation reportedly did not much, if any, progress in a VMT pilot program. I understand that executive agencies routinely miss congressional deadlines because they feel overwhelmed and prioritize their responsibilities based on political considerations. But where does that leave us with VMT fee?
The most likely outcome is that policymakers will let the clock run out by allowing the 2024 elections to take precedence over everything else. Support for testing and establishing a VMT fee could be revived after the elections, or it could be done in future decades to help upgrade the infrastructure to facilitate autonomous vehicles operation It would be socially desirable to establish a VMT fee as soon as possible, but like many important policies, some legislative actions do not even get out of the starting door even though the future calls for them to be implemented now.