The University of Tennessee, Knoxville


TTAP Newsletter: RoadTalk

From the Director

by Dave Clarke, P.E.

Brrrr! It's been a bitter winter, and it ain't over yet! As I type, the weather prognosticators are forecasting a chance of snow for later in the week. The past few winters (a whole bunch of them, to my recollection) have been so mild in East Tennessee that we've had very little demand for TTAP classes on winter maintenance topics. Maybe it's time to dust off some old courses and add them to next year's training calendar.

We were fortunate here at UTK to have a visit and seminar last week by Dr. Marty Wachs, currently of RAND Corporation and formerly a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and UCLA. Among other things, Dr. Wachs is a recognized authority on transportation finance. In his presentation, he pointed out that under current government fuel economy standards, U.S. petroleum consumption will decline by two billion barrels of oil annually, an overall 25 percent reduction. Since highway infrastructure is presently funded by motor fuel taxes, this does not bode well. To keep pace with funding needs, we will either need a painful increase in the fuel excise tax, or some sort of alternative revenue generation system, or possibly a combination.

Increases in the fuel tax have, so far, been a modern day third rail of politics. There is little enthusiasm among the electorate—in Tennessee or nationally—for any sort of tax increase. Our elected representatives are keenly attuned to the wishes of the voters. So, the near term likelihood of a fuel tax increase, particularly of the magnitude needed to offset such large declines in fuel consumption, is small.

Another major problem with fuel taxation is that it fails to collect from the small, but increasing, percentage of the vehicle fleet that does not use petroleum fuel. Electric vehicles, for instance, get a free pass.

The holy grail of the highway revenue community is a tax based on vehicle-miles of travel (VMT). Such a tax would apply to all vehicles using the highway system. It could be graduated to reflect the impact of various vehicle classes on the infrastructure. Funds collected could, in theory, be allocated out to each infrastructure owner based on mileage traveled on their portion of the system.

While the VMT based tax has positive features, it also presents some formidable collection and enforcement issues. Advocates point out that current technology for vehicle tracking, present in every cell phone, could greatly simplify the accounting of miles traveled by roadway. However, this would mean government monitoring of vehicle travel. With the headlines of recent months about government collection and misuse of data, vehicle tracking raises serious privacy questions. Dr. Wachs believes that VMT based revenue collection systems are at least 20 years in the future. However, I think we need to be vigilant about the potential for abuse of a VMT tracking system.

That's about it for now. As always, if we can help, please don't hesitate to call or email. TTAP looks forward to assisting you. Be safe, and stay warm!