Indiana University research finds mileage user fees for roads are broadly unpopular

  • Oct. 18, 2016


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Drivers don’t want to pay per mile for traveling the nation’s roads even though the current method for funding highway construction is in jeopardy, according to new Indiana University research.

Drivers now pay a tax on fuel at gas stations, and that money goes to build and repair roads. But the funds are coming up short because efficient vehicles use less fuel, and the tax hasn’t kept up with inflation.

To find out whether a mileage fee is an acceptable replacement for the tax, the researchers at IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs conducted a scientific survey of more than 2,000 Americans. Findings include:

  • Opponents of mileage user fees exceed supporters by a 4-1 ratio.
  • Opposition is even greater if GPS-style devices are used to track mileage rather than self-reporting or odometer inspections.
  • Many opponents feel so strongly that they say they’re willing to take political action against lawmakers who try to adopt mileage user fees.

At least 23 states have or are considering mileage user fees.

“The concept is gaining traction among policymakers in the U.S.,” said SPEA researcher Denvil Duncan, the lead author of the study. “But the relative intensity with which opponents hold their views suggests it will be quite difficult to generate public consensus in favor of adopting mileage user fees in the near future.”

The survey found that about 20 percent of drivers would be willing to pay fees based on odometer readings. In part because they fear an invasion of their privacy, only 13 percent favor the government using vehicle-mounted GPS devices to measure miles traveled.

“If drivers could select the method used to track vehicle miles traveled, their privacy concerns might be minimized and the fee marginally more popular,” Duncan said, noting that Oregon has used that strategy since adopting a fee last year.

Technology isn’t the only hurdle. The survey indicated that roughly two-thirds of Americans do not believe roads should be financed under the user-pays principle, whether that’s through a fuel tax or mileage fee.

“It will also take political courage to support a mileage user fee,” Duncan said. “The political gamesmanship that often surrounds tax policy reforms is likely to favor opponents.”

Some solution must be found soon. The annual tax revenue generated by the federal fuel tax is $20 billion lower than what is needed to maintain highway performance at its current level. Similar funding gaps also exist among states.

In addition to Duncan, the Indiana University research team includes Venkata Nadella, Stacey Giroux, Ashley Clark and John D. Graham. Their article, "The road mileage user fee: Level, intensity and predictors of public support," was published in the journal Transport Policy.

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