Policy Brief

Ten Reasons Why Per-Mile Tolling Is a Better Highway User Fee than Fuel Taxes

Mileage-based user fees are a sustainable, fair and efficient alternative to the gas tax

This policy brief focuses on the challenge of developing a viable, user-friendly, per-mile charging system to replace fuel taxes for the nation’s major highways. In doing so, it outlines 10 reasons why per-mile tolling is a better highway user fee than fuel taxes.

  • Reason 1: Per-mile tolling is a direct, rather than indirect, user fee. Motorists would pay for the amount of service they received; they would pay providers directly for providing that service; and they would know exactly how much they were paying and what they were getting for it.
  • Reason 2: Per-mile tolling is a sustainable long-term funding source for long-term infrastructure, which does not depend on the energy source used to propel the vehicles. Its transparency should help rebuild trust in the highway funding system.
  • Reason 3: Per-mile tolls can be tailored to the cost of each road and bridge, rather than being averaged across all types of roads, from neighborhood streets to massive Interstates; this ensures adequate funding for major highway projects like Interstate reconstruction and modernization.
  • Reason 4: Per-mile tolling reflects greater fairness, since those who drive mostly on Interstates will pay higher rates than those who drive mostly on local streets.
  • Reason 5: If per-mile tolling is implemented as a true user fee, it will be self-limiting, dedicated solely to the purpose for which it was implemented (and enforceable via bond covenants with those who buy toll revenue bonds).
  • Reason 6: Per-mile tolling will guarantee proper ongoing maintenance of the tolled corridors, since bond-buyers and other investors legally require this as a condition of providing the funds.
  • Reason 7: Per-mile tolling also provides a ready source of funding for future improvements to the tolled corridor.
  • Reason 8: Toll financing means needed projects, such as reconstruction and widening, can be done when they are needed, and paid for over several decades as highway users enjoy the benefits of the improved facilities.
  • Reason 9: A per-mile tolling system using all-electronic tolling can easily implement variable pricing on urban expressways to reduce and manage traffic congestion.
  • Reason 10: Per-mile tolling would be the first big step toward replacing fuel taxes with mileage-based user fees-something that most of the transportation research and policy community has concluded should eventually happen.

As this policy brief makes clear, the fuel tax was never an “ideal user fee”. It should be replaced with a direct charge for highway services that is sustainable, fair, efficient and-for major highways and bridges-tailored to the capital and operating cost of individual facilities. This system should not create privacy concerns by enabling governments to track where and when people travel, and should give motorists choices in how to pay for their miles traveled.

Attachments

Robert Poole is director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow at Reason Foundation. Poole, an MIT-trained engineer, has advised the Ronald Reagan, the George H.W. Bush, the Clinton, and the George W. Bush administrations.

Surface Transportation

In the field of surface transportation, Poole has advised the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, the White House Office of Policy Development, National Economic Council, Government Accountability Office, and state DOTs in numerous states.

Poole's 1988 policy paper proposing privately financed toll lanes to relieve congestion directly inspired California's landmark private tollway law (AB 680), which authorized four pilot toll projects including the successful 91 Express Lanes in Orange County. More than 20 other states and the federal government have since enacted similar public-private partnership legislation. In 1993, Poole oversaw a study that coined the term HOT (high-occupancy toll) Lanes, a term which has become widely accepted since.

California Gov. Pete Wilson appointed Poole to the California's Commission on Transportation Investment and he also served on the Caltrans Privatization Advisory Steering Committee, where he helped oversee the implementation of AB 680.

From 2003 to 2005, he was a member of the Transportation Research Board's special committee on the long-term viability of the fuel tax for highway finance. In 2008 he served as a member of the Texas Study Committee on Private Participation in Toll Roads, appointed by Gov. Rick Perry. In 2009, he was a member of an Expert Review Panel for Washington State DOT, advising on a $1.5 billion toll mega-project. In 2010, he was a member of the transportation transition team for Florida's Governor-elect Rick Scott. He is a member of two TRB standing committees: Congestion Pricing and Managed Lanes.

Aviation

Poole is a member of the Government Accountability Office's National Aviation Studies Advisory Panel and he has testified before the House and Senate's aviation subcommittees on numerous occasions. Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Poole consulted the White House Domestic Policy Council and the leadership of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.

He has also advised the Federal Aviation Administration, Office of the Secretary of Transportation, White House Office of Policy Development, National Performance Review, National Economic Council, and the National Civil Aviation Review Commission on aviation issues. Poole is a member of the Critical Infrastructure Council of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation and of the Air Traffic Control Association.

Poole was among the first to propose the commercialization of the U.S. air traffic control system, and his work in this field has helped shape proposals for a U.S. air traffic control corporation. A version of his corporation concept was implemented in Canada in 1996 and was more recently endorsed by several former top FAA administrators.

Poole's studies also launched a national debate on airport privatization in the United States. He advised both the FAA and local officials during the 1989-90 controversy over the proposed privatization of Albany (NY) Airport. His policy research on this issue helped inspire Congress' 1996 enactment of the Airport Privatization Pilot Program and the privatization of Indianapolis' airport management under Mayor Steve Goldsmith.

General Background

Robert Poole co-founded the Reason Foundation with Manny Klausner and Tibor Machan in 1978, and served as its president and CEO from then until the end of 2000. He was a member of the Bush-Cheney transition team in 2000. Over the years, he has advised the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations on privatization and transportation policy.

Poole is credited as the first person to use the term "privatization" to refer to the contracting-out of public services and is the author of the first-ever book on privatization, Cutting Back City Hall, published by Universe Books in 1980. He is also editor of the books Instead of Regulation: Alternatives to Federal Regulatory Agencies (Lexington Books, 1981), Defending a Free Society (Lexington Books, 1984), and Unnatural Monopolies (Lexington Books, 1985). He also co-edited the book Free Minds & Free Markets: 25 Years of Reason (Pacific Research Institute, 1993).

Poole has written hundreds of articles, papers, and policy studies on privatization and transportation issues. His popular writings have appeared in national newspapers, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Forbes, and numerous other publications. He has also been a guest on network television programs such as Good Morning America, NBC's Nightly News, ABC's World News Tonight, and the CBS Evening News. Poole writes a monthly column on transportation issues for Public Works Financing.

Poole earned his B.S. and M.S. in mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and did graduate work in operations research at New York University.