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Mileage fee backers to meet in DC

Mileage fee backers to meet in DC
© Wikimedia Commons

Backers of plan to tax drivers based on how many miles they travel, instead of how many gallons of gas they buy, are scheduled to meet in Washington this week. 

The Mileage-Based User Fee Alliance (MBUFA) will hold its third annual conference on Tuesday to discuss the plan, known in transportation circles as Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT)

The proposal has faced staunch opposition in Washington, where it has been floated as alternative to the 18.4 cents per gallon gas tax that is currently used to pay for infrastructure projects. Critics say it will allow government officials to track the movements of U.S. drivers. 

The mileage fee group said Monday that states are studying and the proposal and the recently completed highway bill includes money for additional pilot programs, however.  

"While many states have studied or tested mileage-based user fees, for the first time federal funding was approved for such activities in the FAST Act," the group said. "Section 6020 of the new law creates a $95 million, five-year grant program to pilot mileage-based user fees in states and regions across the country. With the addition of federal funding, it is expected that far more states will pilot this transformational road funding technique." 

States like California and Oregon are conducting pilot programs that will involve 5,000 drivers who will volunteer to track their mileage via one of five manual and automated means. 

Officials in both states have stressed that participants in the mileage fee pilot program will not be forced to install GPS trackers on their cars. 

"Participants do not need to purchase or install any new technology to be part of the pilot, and many can use existing technology such as smartphones and their vehicle odometer," the California Department of Transportation says in a frequently asked questions section of its Road Charge website. 

"The pilot will give participants several options for reporting mileage, including those which do not require technology in the vehicle or mileage reporting," the website continued. 

Transportation advocates in Washington have suggested moving to a mileage-based fee system as receipts from the gas tax have dwindled in recent years, but found little support in Congress. 

The normal source for transportation projects is revenue collected by the federal gas tax. The tax has not been increased since 1993, however, and the pace of infrastructure expenses is outpacing it, as cars become more fuel efficient.

The federal government typically spends approximately $50 billion per year in road and transit spending, but the gas tax only brings in about $34 billion per year. 

The $305 billion transportation bill approved by Congress last year included a package of offsets from other areas of the federal budget that totaled about $70 billion to close the gap long enough to pay for five years' worth of highway and transit projects. 

Transportation advocates have suggested a switch to a mileage-based program as an alternative to raising the gas tax, but critics have raised concerns about potential invasions of drivers' privacy. 

The Obama administration and Republicans in Congress have in the past distanced themselves from both mileage-based driver fees and an increase in the gas tax. The president and lawmakers have instead talked up using revenue from taxing corporate profits that are stored overseas to pay for roads.  

The 2015 highway bill includes a grant program known as the Surface Transportation System Funding Alternatives that provides $95 million to help states like California study alternatives to using dwindling gas tax revenue to pay for transportation projects. 

Prior to passing the highway bill, Congress had not passed a transportation funding package that lasted longer than two years since 2005, much to the chagrin of infrastructure advocates in Washington.