While elected officials in the US were quibbling over the debt-ceiling and putting off a reauthorization of the federal transportation bill, Dutch officials were piloting an innovative, but contentious, new revenue stream for the transportation sector: a vehicle-miles traveled (or VMT) fee. In the US, transportation improvements (e.g. building bridges, maintaining highways, striping new bicycle lanes, upgrading transit vehicles) historically have been funded almost wholly through the gas tax – a. 18.4 cents per gallon fee leveraged on drivers as they fill up their tank.  This tax has not been raised since President Clinton’s deficit reduction plan passed in 1993Several factors, including inflation and fuel efficiency improvements, have left this funding source inadequate for an ever-expanding and ever-degrading transportation network.  The idea of a fee based purely on how far one drives, as opposed to the proxy that is the gas tax, has been floated around, but its inclusion in a full reauthorization of the federal transportation bill seems unlikely with an election looming and a Republican promise of no new taxes.

In The Netherlands, a 6-month trial charging drivers a fee based on how far, where, and when they travel demonstrated the program’s ability to change drivers’ behavior.  Seventy percent of drivers decided to avoid rush hour traffic and use alternate routes.  The trial may have even underestimated success, though, since participants knew they would be redeemed for the fees.

The experiment and the success were enabled with a wireless connection to the internet and GPS, which enabled the system to “tabulate a charge for each car trip by using a mileage-based formula that also takes account of a car’s fuel efficiency, the time of day and the route.”  At the end of each month, a driver would receive a bill in the mail with a detailed summary of the usage fees, similar to a cell phone bill.

Wave of the future?  Seems like the future will be found sooner in Europe than in the US, unfortunately.

- Terra Curtis