HARRISBURG — A state commission on Thursday explored a mileage-based user fee as a way to increase funding for roads and bridges as increased fuel economy and electric-powered vehicles make the state’s gas tax inadequate.
The Transportation Revenue Options Commission was formed in March by Gov. Tom Wolf to help identify ways to augment or replace the gas tax, after the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation announced its controversial plan in February to raise funds by adding tolls on nine interstate bridges.
Pennsylvania, with a state gas tax of 58.7 cents per gallon, has the second-highest gas levy in the country behind only California.
Ronald Drnevich, former chairman of Gannett Fleming, and a member of the transportation revenue funding commission said the state is going to need to consider the creation of mileage-based user fees to replace the gas tax.
“I don’t think we can solve the problem without a mileage-based user fee,” he said.
These mileage-based user fees have typically been determined by using tracking technology that determines how much a vehicle is driven or by having the drivers self-report their miles, he said.
He noted that there will certainly be resistance to the idea from many motorists over concerns about privacy, but he said that the state should at least launch a pilot program.
It may take years for the idea to take hold, he said, but “we need to start now,” he said.
The revenue commission is planning to hold a formal presentation on the idea of mileage-based fees in late May.
The governor announced the revenue options commission after lawmakers began to balk at the plan to add tolls on nine interstate bridges. On Tuesday, the state Senate passed legislation that would halt that bridge tolling scheme and revamp the way public-private partnership projects undertaken by PennDOT are approved.
At the revenue options commission meeting, members of the public-private partnership board that OK’d the bridge-tolling plan defended the move as a necessary step to provide the department with the money needed to fix the bridges.
“There is no other way we could think of that gives you the revenue you need to get the job done,” said Howard Cohen, one of the P3 board members.
As gas tax revenue dips and both state and federal lawmakers refuse to consider raising the gas tax rate, “there will be more tolling,” said state Rep. Mike Carroll, the Democratic chairman of the House transportation committee and another member of the P3 board.
The debate over transportation funding is picking up intensity as PennDOT officials warn that despite the state’s gas tax rate, Pennsylvania doesn’t have enough money to make all the needed repairs on the state’s road and bridge system. The Department of Transportation has about $6.9 billion available for highway and bridge work each year, but state officials estimate that there is about $15 billion in needed repairs.
That gap is likely only going to grow as more electric vehicles hit the road, meaning there are fewer gas-powered vehicles paying gas tax.
Thursday, representatives of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association spoke to the commission about efforts in other states to tackle the same transportation funding challenges.
Nationally, the share of transportation revenue state’s get from gas tax has been dwindling, said Alison Black, chief economist for ARTBA. In 2000, about 31 percent of transportation funding came from gas tax, but by 2019 that had dropped to 19 percent. States have begun to increasingly turn to tolling and other fees and taxes to try to replace the drop in gas tax, she said.
Only two states have mileage-based user fee programs in place — Oregon and Utah — and both of those programs are optional, said Carolyn Kramer ARTBA's Transportation Investment Advocacy Center Director.. In Utah, the user fee replaces the fee levied on electric vehicles and the mileage-based fee is capped so it won’t exceed what the driver would pay if they just paid the state’s electric vehicle fee.
The revenue options commission is scheduled to deliver its recommendations by Aug. 1.
John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.