Government, Transportation

The awesome potential and the scary downside of VMTs

Typical Suburban Arterial

Typical Suburban Arterial

Two posts ago, I wrote about how, even though I live in a home that is slightly beyond the fringe of walkable urbanism, I still consider myself a good urbanist.  I feel comfortable making the assertion because I continue to work toward the day when I can move into a truly walkable urban setting and because I’m willing to pay a vehicle mileage tax (VMT) and higher gas and property taxes appropriate to my urbanist perspective.

In my most recent post, I wrote that we don’t charge correctly for the increasingly common alternative schooling decisions.  I made the argument because we don’t require parents driving children to more distant schools to pay a VMT or a gas tax that would cover the true costs of driving.  (It’s a concern that applies to all driving trips.  I just happened to have a good school choice anecdote with which to frame the story.)

Having touched upon VMTs twice, it seemed reasonable to complete the triptych by looking more deeply into the current state and future path of VMTs and to speculate about the good and the evil that might lie along that path.

In its simplest form, a VMT is a tax assessed per mile of vehicular travel.  In most current thinking, it’s considered an alternative to a gas tax, although I disagree with that direction for reasons I’ll offer below.

Writing in CityLab, Eric Jaffe gives eighteen reasons why the time is right for VMTs.  It’s not the most profound list you’ll read this week, but the arguments are largely sound and the list provides a good primer into VMTs.

Then, both the Atlantic and San Francisco Chronicle write about a VMT pilot project currently underway in Oregon.  Both articles describe the general outline of the pilot project and the alternative means by which miles can be recorded.  Both articles also note the opposition of some hybrid and electrical vehicle owners to the VMT because it reduces the cost incentives for those alternative vehicles.  Writing as a Prius owner, I can only say that the objections prove that wrong-headed thinkers can be found in pretty much any subset of the population.

(Acknowledgement: The best friend of my adult years was an early sponsor of the ideas that eventually led to the Oregon pilot project.  He first made his input as an Oregon State Senator and then later as the Oregon State Treasurer.  I would have loved to have had Ben offer his insights for this post for me, but he has passed away at an unacceptably young age.)

Before digging into the technology of mileage data collection, I’ll quibble with a couple of elements of the current VMT thinking as reported in both articles.  First, the general question seems to be whether a VMT should replace a gas tax.  I’ll argue that both are needed because they serve separate functions.

VMT revenues should be targeted toward optimizing and maintaining the transportation system.  (Although I would argue that a certain portion of the street network should always remain a general fund obligation.  Even the citizens who have found ways to live without driving still expect service from emergency vehicles so should pay a share of the road costs.)

Meanwhile, gas taxes should be targeted toward addressing the environmental and geopolitical implications of petroleum use.  And even the users of electrical cars, if they’re relying on a grid with fossil fuel sources, should be picking up some of those costs through utility bills.

The two uses of tax revenues are both legitimate, but separate.  We shouldn’t be having an either/or discussion of VMTs and gas taxes.  We need both.

Also, the discussion on the VMT rate seems to focus on the appropriate mileage charge to match the current gas tax.  For the Oregon pilot program, where the goal is to induce drivers to test the VMT in lieu of the gas tax, that’s a reasonable approach.  But eventually, if the VMT is to replace the gas tax, with the gas tax revenues directed elsewhere, the VMT will need to be at a higher level.

Right now, the gas tax is failing and the highway trust fund is in arrears.  To consider replacing the gas tax with another tax having a similar revenue stream is like discussing whether to patch the Titanic with cork or rubber, philosophically interesting but practically irrelevant.

In my last two posts, I suggested that a VMT of a dime per mile might be appropriate.  With the Oregon pilot program using 1.5 cents per mile, the dime might have been high.  But to repay current deficits in the trust fund, to repair failing roads, and to position the roadway network for the future, a nickel might be appropriate.

With those quibbles noted, let’s talk about the data collection underlying the VMT.  The Oregon program, which goes under the name OReGO, offers GPS and odometer options, with the latter for those who have privacy issues related to the former.  I understand those concerns, but it’s hard not to get excited about what a GPS data collection system could do.

Among the possibilities with GPS would be variable destination pricing so a destination in a particularly congested district, such as Chinatown in San Francisco, could trigger a congestion charge.

Even more fine-tuned, time of day pricing could be implemented, with a trip on a busy freeway having a different mileage charge at 2am than at 8am.

Or certain routes could be favored over other routes, with drivers taking the longer but usually less congested route paying a lesser mileage.  This could even be used to encourage drivers to stay away from routes used for emergency services.

The possibilities for encouraging driving behaviors to optimize the road system could be nearly endless.

But even more exciting could be the possibilities when the car isn’t being driven.  Parking meters could become obsolete, with charges being automatically noted when a car parked in a metered district.

Parking beyond posted time limits could automatically trigger fines, along with email warnings when the time limit is nearing.

Parking lots that are restricted to shoppers of a particular store could be monitored automatically, with the GPS noting the car in the parking lot and then awaiting proof of a transaction or other validation from within the store, without which a fine could be assessed.

And parking management districts could be managed more effectively.  Earlier this week, I sat through an extended public hearing during which one of the leading neighborhood concerns was street parking.  The neighbors reported that an existing apartment project was generating excess cars, with the result that those cars were consuming street parking for blocks around, inconveniencing neighbors, and leading to testy sidewalk discussions.  Based on the existing parking issues, many of the neighbors opposed a new apartment project.

But imagine a GPS car monitoring program under which parking an unpermitted car on a parking restricted street would be electronically known.  Upon the first couple of transgressions, the car owner would get an email warning about changing parking habits.  As the violations piled up, fines would be incurred.  Eventually, the owner would be advised to begin his day at the city impound lot.  It’s a parking management solution that would quickly alleviate the problems in the neighborhood.

But as cool as some of these possibilities sound, there is also an Orwellian concern in the data collection.  There are probably more than a few drivers who don’t want the government having digital records of where their cars spend nights when their spouses are out of town.  Or don’t want a government server knowing about the midnight runs to fast food places on five consecutive nights.

And any reassurances that the government could keep data safe or delete it regularly aren’t credible.  If Target and Ashley Madison can’t manage that task, I certainly don’t trust a government hiring low-bid consultants to achieve it.

I think the concept of a VMT is great.  I encourage its adoption in the near future.  And I’m excited by the prospects that a GPS-based VMT system would provide for better managing our roadway and parking resources.  But the spectre of digital leakage scares me greatly and I don’t know how to reconcile the optimism with the fear.

Perhaps that’s just the nature of life in the 21st century.

Above, I mentioned a recent land-use hearing for which street parking was a major concern.  The same hearing included concerns about driving speeds.  I have thoughts to share on that question in my next post.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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