Fears, jeers and some cheers for mileage usage fee

DOVER – Pay the state for each mile driven on Delaware’s roadways?

How does that sound?

Before jumping to conclusions about a system that could replace the current gas tax paid at the pump, at least listen to the reasons for it.

That’s according to Oregon Department of Transportation spokeswoman Michelle Godfrey, who said she typically needs just a couple minutes to convince someone of the merits of her state’s ongoing pilot program.

Pictured is a device that Oregon residents can plug into their vehicle to track road usage miles. (Submitted photo/State of Oregon)

Pictured is a device that Oregon residents can plug into their vehicle to track road usage miles.
(Submitted photo/State of Oregon)

“Once they’ve learned a little bit more about it, they start to come around,” Ms. Godfrey said.

On Tuesday, the Delaware Department of Transportation announced that the state applied for and received a $1.49 million federal grant to analyze and test all facets of a road usage fee system.

Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont will also launch programs as part of the I-95 Corridor Coalition.

A day after the trial program’s arrival went public, state Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover South, issued a statement blasting even the mention of a potential new calculation for drivers to pay.

The senator, who is running for state governor, was especially concerned about a state-provided GPS monitor that would tally a driver’s miles to determine a monthly payment.

“This is an outrageous invasion of privacy,” he said.“The government has no business knowing where and how much law-abiding private citizens drive.”

Continuing on, Sen. Bonini called the entire idea “laughable” and forecast that the gas tax would remain even if the new system is adopted.

“Democrats can’t seem to get enough of our money,” he said. “The state of Delaware should not be in the business of invading its citizens’ privacy.”

Trying to compensate

Delaware officials are trying to counter a drop in collected gas tax money due to more efficient vehicles that burn less fuel and require less consumption; the tax supports the Transportation Trust Fund that finances maintenance and construction of the state’s road-related infrastructure.

A road usage fee would work against fuel efficient vehicles now paying a gas tax, which is 23 cents per mile.

While fuel efficient vehicles are “great for the environment of course, we also have roads and bridges to maintain,” DelDOT Secretary Jennifer Cohan said, emphasizing the importance of both factors.

Soon after news of Delaware’s federal grant was released, some online posts and e-mails to the media decried the possibility of paying for each mile traveled in the First State.

Describing the issue as “polarizing,” Ms. Cohan understands the initial angst that some may have about a new system, but believes more information needs to be gathered and communicated to the public before reaching a verdict.

“It’s innovative and it’s new,” Ms. Cohan said of the developing pilot program. “Delaware is a small state and anything new tends to be scary …”

Ms. Cohan said “that’s the beauty of the grant” because it can bring a better understanding of the impact of a mileage-based travel system.

“This may turn out to be not worthy of testing past the pilot program …” Ms. Cohan said.

“To not consider a system that is involved with [paying based on] usage of [roadways. though,] is illogical …”

There aren’t a lot of other options to addressing declining dropping gas tax money, though, past raising tolls, Division of Motor Vehicles fees and increasing the gas tax itself, Ms. Cohan said.

“Administratively, not legislatively, raising the gas tax would be the easy thing to do,” said Ms. Cohan, who noted the growing futility of relying on a declining revenue source.

Early planning stage

Though nothing is determined, Ms. Cohan said the pilot program could involved a 1 or 1.5 cent (Oregon’s rate) per mile charge.

The controlled pilot program will include 50 volunteers and their vehicles beginning in June 2017; an outreach program to the public and studying the issue will begin in December of this year. A final report to the US Department of Transportation is due in October 2017.

While no decisions have been made on who will participate in the program, Ms. Cohan said some DelDOT employees and state legislators have already expressed a desire to volunteer; a diverse mix of people, vehicles and travel patterns are sought.

Delaware residents interested in participating in the pilot program can email DelDOT at They can submit their name to dotpr@state.de.us.

There are several options on tracking miles, including among others, a device that plugs into a vehicle’s dataport, through an EZ Pass transponder or reporting miles on the odometer to the DMV, officials said.

DelDOT will reposition employees to staff the project, which involves $290,000 in cost; the state isn’t paying out extra money since the employees are still working the same regular hours, just on a different tasks.

The DMV, DelDOT’s in-house financial and environmental engineers will be allocated for administering the pilot program.

How Oregon works

In Oregon, Ms. Godfrey said, the program’s small device plugged into a vehicle’s data port only has the capability to track miles, not locations. Miles driven out of state do not count thanks to a GPS.

The program began on July 1, 2015 after Oregon legislators passed a bill outlining road use charges and how they will be administered.

Since then, according to ODOT’s Ms. Godfrey, 85 percent of the 1,200 enrolled vehicles have opted to remain in the program, 75 percent of them using a GPS.

“It’s going great and there have been very few problems, nothing that couldn’t be easily addressed,” Ms. Godfrey said.

“It’s been proven that the technology is feasible so now we can get into the nuanced elements of the program.”

In Oregon, a manager and six staff oversee the program, which has an operations budget of $5.4 million covering two years. IT support is provided.

Oregon’s state legislature must eventually determine whether the concept has a permanent future in the state and might require all registered vehicles to participate.

“That is what our legislature will be considering – if we want to expand the program, what is the best way to roll it out?,” she said.

“We have the Road User Fee Task Force that will evaluate the options and make a recommendation to the legislature at some point – perhaps next session (February through June) when a transportation funding package will be discussed.”

AAA Mid-Atlantic Vice President for Government Affairs Cathy Rossi, who will participate in a steering committee for the pilot project, believes that alternatives must be considered due to the gas tax drop.

“Would drivers prefer a road user fee or paying more in gas taxes?,” she asked rhetorically in a statement.

“What’s fair and who pays what? These are real questions that will need to be answered.

“Ultimately, drivers who participate in the pilot project will have a voice in telling us how workable a road user fee system is for them as motorists.

“While AAA believes the federal fuel tax is the best near-term option to increase transportation funding, we are open to exploring other funding options for transportation, so long as transportation dollars are dedicated solely to transportation projects.”

Legislators respond

Asked for initial thoughts on road usage fee concept via email, state legislators acknowledged that added revenue is needed from some source to support transportation; testing the pilot program was worth at least evaluating the results for its potential in the end, some said.

All Kent and Sussex County senators and representatives were asked for comment.

“With more efficient, alternate fuel, hybrid, and electric vehicles on the road, the fuel tax may not be the most equitable way to fund our transportation system,” Rep. Harvey Kenton, R-Milford, said.

“It is axiomatic that public policy always trails technological change. I have some concerns about the failings of our current system, as well as questions regarding the model this study will explore.

“This pilot will not commit the state to any course of action, but it will hopefully provide some information that will help Delaware officials make prudent decisions down the road.”

Rep. Danny Short, R-Seaford, believes, “The real issue here to be addressed is not the lack of transportation funding but the issue we have raised now for many years – that the Transportation Trust Fund in Delaware is being used to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollar for regular budget operations and not roads, bridges and highway repairs.

“We need to remove the expense of salaries, trucks and cars and related personnel benefit expense from the Fund which should be used to build our infrastructure.”

Rep. Ron Gray, R-Selbyville, wants to know more about the pilot program’s potential.

“We continue to have problems funding transportation infrastructure in Delaware and the nation,” he said.

“I look forward to hearing what the study recommends. We can’t continue to ignore the needs to upgrade our transportation infrastructure.”

Serious infrastructure issues

Rep. Timothy Dukes, R-Laurel, opined that, “I think the better idea is to use the Transportation Trust fund for its created purpose and then we don’t have to experiment with a mileage-based user fee.

“We all know that we must began to seriously look at our transportation infrastructure in the state of Delaware.

“However, before we create another user fee again, we must make some tough decisions with our budget.”

Rep. Ruth Briggs King, R-Georgetown, offered that “As I understand the pilot it would provide feedback to determine the viability of alternate or complimentary method to fund roads and infrastructure.

“This means that high efficiency vehicles would pay a fair share of roads since they are not consuming fuel at the same rate/level as standard vehicle. The issue is potential impact to commuters and business with high usage since we expect roads to be ready when needed by any motorist.

“I may only use them on vacation or special trips, but I need them and my limited use would not be sufficient.

I think it’s a great idea to have a solid base of information for informed decision making.

“Now, how will they identify and select the drivers?”

An issue of privacy?

Sen. Brian Bushweller, D-Dover-Central Kent, wants to know more about information collected in the program.

“My concern with the mileage based system is pretty simple: privacy,” he said.

“In order for the government to know how many miles to bill us for, it will need some way to know for certain how many miles we drive. That suggests a GPS based system with reports sent directly to the government and that suggests the potential for shenanigans.

“I am hoping this mileage based test somehow addresses that issue. Whatever long term solution we settle on needs to protect us from unfair and unnecessary government intrusion into our private lives.”

An early look at the concept left Rep. Andria Bennett, D-Dover, with plenty of questions and hope for answers.

“I think there are too many concerns and unanswered questions that need to be addressed before we can even consider moving to a mileage based user fee system,” she said.

“Such as: How will it work? Is it equitable? In state? Out of state? Privacy concerns? Will it take the place of the current 23 cent gas tax? Will the public have input when the time comes?

“I’m hopeful the coalition will be able to answer these questions and many more.”

While noting that he hasn’t had an opportunity to study the concept, Rep. Trey Paradee, D-Cheswold did say, “ I am a bit skeptical of the concept because there are so many people who live in my district who commute long distances to other states for work.

“If the tax is a Delaware-only tax, but Delawareans are racking up large amounts of miles in other states, it hardly seems fair to those individuals. I have also had constituents in my district, who are members of the volunteer fire and ambulance service, question the fairness of assessing their miles when they respond to an emergency, which could possibly impact membership and/or the number of members who respond on a consistent basis.

“I will try to keep an open mind until I see the final report, but I am highly skeptical.”

Just a test

Stressing that the program is just a test, Rep. Lyndon Yearick, R-Dover South, said, “My initial questions would focus on the impact on our key business segments (agriculture, small businesses, and tourism) and employers.

“How would the user fee impact our agriculture/farming industries? What’s the impact on our poultry farmers as they bring chickens to and from their houses? Or, the impact on our farms like Fifer Orchards when they pick sweet corn?

“Will the fees differ with a loaded or unloaded tractor trailer or wagon? How does the fee impact our small businesses, for example, landscapers?

“How would the fee apply to our very important tourism industry as people outside the state visit our beaches, DE Turf, etc.?

“How about our non-profits, for example, Kent Sussex Industries or the Modern Maturity Center with Meals on Wheels, non-profits that rely on a significant amount of driving while operating on very tight budgets?

“How about our schools, for example, the Caesar Rodney School District and their ability to cost effectively provide bus service for students and families?

“Finally, I’d welcome a study to see the financial impact and additional construction dollars or savings if we reform our prevailing wage system on our state’s construction projects.”

Saying he is opposed to mileage-based user fees, Rep. Rich Collins, R-Millsboro, said “This system is an economic disincentive for those who would use our highways to grow our economy.

“In other words, if you drive a lot for business or to get to your job, you will pay more, maybe much more, than those who choose to stay home.

“Currently, you can regulate how much fuel tax you pay by buying more efficient vehicles or changing your driving habits.

“Under the proposed system, if you are driving to enhance the financial well-being of society, there will no escape from excess taxation.

“It would also be destructive for brick and mortar businesses who need to move inventory by truck and receive customers by auto. The growth of internet shopping, which can support far fewer jobs, is likely to grow even faster than they already have.”

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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