Study finds little support for charging drivers by the mile

  • Oct. 26, 2016

Editor's note: This story from The Bloomington Herald-Times is being published here as a courtesy for readers of IU in the News.

By Michael Reschke

Legislators looking to address transportation funding challenges by charging drivers a fee for the number of miles they drive will face an uphill battle, according to a new Indiana University study.

Right now, state and federal governments use money generated by a tax on fuel to build and repair roads. But this source of tax revenue has become insufficient, due in large part to the increasing number of fuel-efficient vehicles on the road.

With nearly half the states in the U.S. considering mileage user fees as a solution, researchers in IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs decided to take a look at the popularity of this alternative.

A study of more than 2,000 Americans found opponents of mileage user fees not only outnumber supporters by a ratio of four to one, but they are far more likely to take action to prevent such a tax from being implemented. Those who oppose the tax were more likely to sign a petition, contact a legislator and donate money to a like-minded campaign than those in favor, said IU associate professor Denvil Duncan, lead author of the study.

“It’s safe to conclude the intensity of the opposition is quite high,” Duncan said.

The team of researchers wasn’t surprised by these findings because, in general, people don’t like new taxes. The survey included questions about increasing income taxes, tolls and increasing sales taxes to address the transportation funding. All measures were disliked, Duncan said. Tolls received the highest support, but mileage user fees got a more favorable response than increases in sales and income taxes.

Regardless of the public’s resistance, something will have to be done to address the road funding shortfall. Duncan said the federal government is pulling in about $30 billion from gas taxes annually, but engineers have estimated that bringing all roads and bridges up to acceptable standards will cost in excess of $200 billion.

That’s why 23 states are considering mileage user fees. A pilot program has been implemented in Oregon with about 5,000 volunteers, Duncan said. Those volunteers were given options as to how they wanted the data to be collected, and Duncan thinks that may be a key variable for those supporting mileage user fees to consider.

The IU study was conducted electronically, but the research team got to speak with some participants selected for focus groups. Opposition to government-monitored global positioning system devices was intense, but other tracking methods, such as odometer readings, weren’t as vehemently opposed.

Another common concern is whether a mileage user fee would be a disincentive for people to purchase fuel-efficient vehicles. One way to address that would be fees that take into account a vehicle’s fuel efficiency, and its weight, which affects the lifespan of a road or bridge. Duncan said he’s curious as to how the aforementioned variables will affect support. He’s collected some data, but has yet to analyze it.

Despite the opposition, Duncan thinks a mileage user fee campaign that educates the public about the road funding crisis, and features some of the more palatable methods of data collection, could be successful.

“I wouldn’t rule it out off the bat,” he said.

More information

The paper, “The Road Mileage User Fee: Level, Intensity and Predictors of Public Support,” can be found in the journal Transport Policy.