DelDOT seeks more volunteers in mileage-based user fee study

DOVER — For several years, there’s been a national discussion about whether the gasoline tax should be replaced by a “mileage-based user fee” that would hinge taxes on miles driven rather than gallons of gasoline purchased.

Transportation authorities have said they believe that gas tax is unlikely to be a stable revenue producer in the future as vehicles continue to become more fuel efficient and alternative fuel models — such a electric vehicles — become more popular. Currently at the pumps, Delawareans pay 41.4 cents in tax — 18.4 cents in federal tax and 23 cents for the state.

Delaware joined the mileage-based user fee discussion in 2016 when it received an initial $1.49 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to study the potential impact of the proposal.

Due to more federal grant funds and the need for additional research, DelDOT and the I-95 Corridor Coalition are encouraging more Delawareans to step forward and volunteer for the cost-free study.
The state’s efforts ramped up in 2018 when 155 study participants used a device plugged into their on-board diagnostics port to track their mileage and shared their impressions.

Helping to collect and analyze the data, leaders of the I-95 Corridor Coalition — a self-described neutral party — noted that feedback from the cohort yielded useful information.

“The work we did last year was to sort of start the conversation and explain what a distance-based fee could look like,” said coalition executive director Patricia “Trish” Hendren.

“What we learned was that out-of-state travel is really important on the East Coast. There has been a lot of study on this out west — California had the largest pilot study to date, but it’s a very different situation for them. You can drive in that state for two days and still be in it.

“On the East Coast, we found that over 20 percent — or more than 1 in 5 miles — that people drive were out of state. So running a program like this on the east coast is far more complicated.”

Privacy concerns
Several other findings were that privacy concerns lessened over the course of the study.

“Privacy concerns continue to be a big question among people,” said Ms. Hendren. “The technology uses the computer in your car to understand how many miles are being driven and the GPS device tracks where they’ve been driven and that information is being sent to a third party, private sector vendor.

“We were really shocked to see a big chance in the privacy concerns of people who participated in last year’s pilot. Going in, 57 percent were concerned about privacy but that dropped to only 30 percent once the study was complete.”

A company called Azuga — a fleet tracking service — provides the devices being used in the study. Study participants have the ability to use a device that does not track their location.

“This could potentially be a huge change in how we fund our transportation infrastructure, we really need Delaware and the east coast’s input on this,” said Ms. Hendren. “Looking long term, as the types of cars we drive change, how we fund the roads and bridges we drive on has to change. We want to ask this tough question now so we don’t get into a situation 10 to 15 years down the road where we’re scratching our heads not knowing what to do.”

Ms. Hendren notes that the current study, which runs through the end of October, has 500 participants from 13 states — 100 of whom are in Delaware. They’re hoping for an enrollment closer to 1,000.

Participants must fill out two surveys after being enrolled in the program. They will receive a $10 gift certificate as a “thank you,” and a “mock” invoice every month that shares the data collected from their vehicles.
Delaware Secretary of Transportation Jennifer Cohan, who also chairs the corridor coalition, says it’s important to examine the proposal because the proportion of the state’s revenue generate by gas tax has fallen steadily in recent years.

“Gas tax just isn’t the future of funding our transportation infrastructure,” she said. “It used to be the number one contributor to our transportation trust fund here in Delaware, but now it has dropped to the third. We know we need to come up with a better model. Vehicles are much cleaner than they used to be and get many more miles per gallon, which is great, but our intent is to find a more stable source of revenue that’s based more on a ‘you use it, you pay for it’ model.”

Ms. Cohan notes that the state’s number one contributor to the transportation trust fund is now Department of Motor Vehicle fees like licenses and registrations. The state’s tolls comes in as the second largest revenue source.

Constitutional breach
Not everyone believes this proposal is a reasonable solution to looming challenges.

Long an outspoken critic of the proposal, Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover, says his primary concern is privacy. He believes a device that tracks motorist’s travel habits could inadvertently become a constitutional breach.

“I have complete faith in our transportation secretary — Jen and her team do a great job — but we don’t know who will have her job in 20 years,” he said.

“It’s not a question of which individual has power, it’s about creating a structure and I’m very concerned about personal security and privacy.

“Quite frankly, allowing the government to track where and when people are traveling is going down a dangerous path. One of the creeds I live by in my political career is: if you give the government the power, eventually they will abuse it.

“If the government wants to know where I’m going and when I’m going there, they better have probable cause.”
Just as important to him, Sen. Bonini questions the need for added revenue and suggests the onus be set on cost savings.

“We don’t need the money,” he said. “If I’m not mistaken, DelDOT has set records for revenue. Beside that, I’m always about looking at the spending side of things. I know no one wants to hear it, but a significant portion of our spending is linked to prevailing wage. Our roads would be 30% cheaper if we weren’t required to use state prevailing wage.”

According to DelDOT’s most recent financial statements their operating revenue increased by $11.8 million to $591 million during the fiscal year ending on June 30, 2018. The reason given was increased vehicle purchases (and resulting fees), toll revenues from heavier traffic and increased passenger fares for transit buses. However, operating expenses also increased to $692 million in the same time period.

Secretary Cohan urges Delawareans to get involved in the study regardless of how they feel about its implications though because dissenting voices need equal time in the discussion.
“A lot of people are for it, and there are many that are afraid of it because there are still a lot of unknowns,” said Ms. Cohan. “Either way, we need as many viewpoints as possible right now because at this stage it’s just pure research.”

Ms. Hendren agrees.
“This is Delaware’s chance to inform policymakers — their voice needs to be heard on what could be a very notable change,” she said.

To learn more about the program or to volunteer for the study, visit i95coalitionmbuf.org/.

Staff writer Ian Gronau can be reached at 741-8272 or igronau@newszap.com

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