(WJET/WFXP/YourErie.com) — For decades the pressure has been on to make vehicles more fuel efficient, and to eliminate emissions altogether worldwide.
As car manufactures and drivers have adapted to regulations that have seen a widespread increase in fuel efficiency, that has had a secondary consequence — transportation funding that has relied on gas taxes have dwindled in response.
While most vehicles are more fuel efficient, and all-electric vehicles have seen a rise in prevalence, they contribute less to infrastructure maintenance funds (supported in Pennsylvania mostly by gas tax revenue) while still using all of the same infrastructure.
This had led many states across the country, including Pennsylvania, to consider mileage-based fees on vehicles.
How far along is that process in Pennsylvania? And what would it take for it to become a reality?
Currently, the commonwealth’s gas tax accounts for some 74% of bridge and highway funding. The need to maintain infrastructure hasn’t changed, yet vehicles have changed and continue to change. Vehicles have dramatically improved their mile-per-gallon rate (mpg), and the country is expecting to shift toward electric vehicles almost exclusively in a little more than a decade.
Looking over a 10-year period in a publication from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the average mpg has dramatically changed for vehicles. In 2007 passenger cars saw an average of 27.5 mpg by CARE standards (a method of calculating mpg that accounts for 55% of city driving and 45% of highway driving). In 2017, just 10 years later, passenger cars averaged 39 mpg. Light trucks went from 22.2 mpg to 29.4 mpg.
There’s another developing trend that’s likely to impact gas tax revenue. California plans to ban the sale of gas vehicles by 2035. Oregon, Washington and New York state are planning similar bans but will allow for plug-in hybrids. Meanwhile, the Postal Service announced its plan to purchase only all-election vehicles beginning in 2026. And several automakers have pledged to either mostly or entirely move to all-electric offerings by 2035.
With Pennsylvania’s highways and bridges mostly dependent on the sale of gasoline for revenue, these changes mean dwindling coffers. Less gas purchased equals less revenue. That has state agencies look for ways to move away from a gas tax.
The Transportation Revenue Options Committee (TROC) was established in Pennsylvania to help find solutions for the dwindling infrastructure revenue. Several alternatives to the gas tax were discussed including a mileage-based tax, tolling, redirecting current funding, new or adjusted fees, and adjustments to current taxes.
“All of those items were discussed, but the ones that were discussed the most were the MBUF (mileage based tax), redirection of state police funding and the package fee,” said Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) Press Secretary Alexis Campbell.
Redirection of state police funding would see Pennsylvania eliminating transfers from the Motor License Fund to the Pennsylvania State Police. That would then require PSP funding to come from the commonwealth’s General Fund.
“The proposition is that policing, whether state or local, is a general function of government and that the Motor License Fund’s revenue sources are more aligned with transportation system use,” a July 2021 TROC report said. “The PA State Police obviously carry out an essential responsibility and one that is stretched by having to police some communities that do not have municipal police forces. That challenge also necessitates a broader approach to police funding outside of the Motor License Fund. The feasibility of this proposed redirection is high and is deemed to be fair.”
Pennsylvania has been part of a coalition studying alternatives to the gas tax. Pennsylvania is one of 17 states that make up The Eastern Transportation Coalition. Pennsylvania was part of a coalition study on a potential Mileage-Based User Fee (MBUF) from October 2020 through January 2021. An MBUF system would assess how many miles a vehicle drives and then charge a fee for those miles. A total of 70 Pennsylvania passenger vehicles and 20 Pennsylvania commercial trucks participated in the most recent study. An earlier pilot was held July 2019 to October 2019 seeing 428 passenger drivers and 55 commercial trucks in Pennsylvania. From May 2018 to July 2018, 35 passenger vehicles participated in the first pilot.
The July 2021 TROC report endorsed an MBUF for Pennsylvania.
“Considering MBUF strategically, TROC proposes a long-term Commonwealth commitment to positioning and preparing for MBUF by vigorously encouraging supportive federal action, raising public awareness and support, and beginning to lay the groundwork for the technological and other implementation components,” the report said. “Such commitment is essential, but it does not address Pennsylvania’s immediate funding problem. Therefore, it is vital to identify and implement multiple near- and medium-term funding sources…”
In total, more than 500 Pennsylvanians participated in pilot studies. Further, more than 1,000 Pennsylvanians have participated in public opinion surveys.
When asked about any public feedback about a potential MBUF in Pennsylvania, PennDOT’s Campbell said, “We have been sharing information about the need to modernize transportation funding, and on MBUF, for several years. We will continue to keep the public informed as discussions progress.”
One of the avenues PennDOT uses to disseminate information is through social media. Several posts have been made on the PennDOT Facebook page lately about the potential for an MBUF in the commonwealth. One such Facebook post was made on Jan. 13 and within 2 hours, the post had 76 comments. The bulk of those comments were negative about either a potential MBUF or PennDOT itself. Readers voiced concerns about how out-of-state miles will be tracked and taxed, about their fears that the gas tax will not actually go away if MBUF is implemented, a loss of out-of-state drivers paying taxes for road maintenance, and perceived mismanagement of current PennDOT funding.
According to PennDOT’s website, an MBUF would have multiple options for mileage reporting. That would include technology that records and reports mileage, manually recording mileage and reporting it through a smartphone, a mail-in form, or through an online submission, or having mileage recorded during an annual inspection.
The same website says rural drivers may save money compared to the gas tax. That, however, assumes rural drivers are driving less fuel efficient vehicles than their urban counterparts. That said, a 2020 analysis by the Eastern Transportation Coalition said rural Pennsylvania drivers would see a savings of about $34 per year through an MBUF compared to the gas tax.
Currently, there is no solid plan to collect payments from out-of-state drivers, according to the PennDOT FAQ, and the FAQ does not address Pennsylvania drivers who travel out-of-state and how those miles would be taxed.
When requested, PennDOT offered no timeline for potential MBUF implementation. PennDOT can not implement an MBUF nor eliminate the gas tax on its own. The Pennsylvania Legislature would need to authorize PennDOT to implement an MBUF.
PennDOT Pathway program is researching potential revenue alternatives. PennDOT Pathway can be contacted through its website.