Trust Fund Needs TUF Love

With President Obama first striking a deal with car makers to double fuel efficiency by 2025, and now finalizing historic fuel rules for freight trucking, the Highway Trust Fund’s revenue stream is kaput.

Most federal transportation spending comes from gasoline and diesel taxes, along with tire taxes and other incidentals. The per-gallon fuel tax was designed to be a “user fee” of sorts, and for decades was roughly seen as a fair way to get the most money from those fueling up most often to use the nation’s roadways.

No more. Even before these latest fuel rules, that funding model was coming apart. Fuel taxes have not kept pace with construction needs or inflation. And we’re starting to see explosive growth in use of alternative-fuel or high mileage vehicles that pay far less in fees than the average user or escape those taxes outright. The fee is no longer fair.

So it’s time to change the terms of the debate. We should quit talking about whether to raise the fuel tax, and quit trying to squash infrastructure spending levels into a busted trust fund model. To a large degree, that misses the basic point. Instead, the debate should first be about setting a basic Transportation User Fee.

We should agree that whoever uses the system should pay into it fairly. That means determining who uses it, and then figuring how to assess everyone according to their use. Think of it like a national toll for access to the infrastructure, and then look at ways to collect it.

Changing the argument to a TUF model captures users no matter what fuel they burn, and nabs the high-mileage or alternative fuels crowd. It means finding a fee structure that is fair, and keeps up with actual usage and needs. It gives the trust fund some TUF love.

If we calculate a fair cost for how people use transportation, policymakers can decide from there a range of fees that capture usage. They may keep a tax at the pump for gas and diesel, but include other fees so that the TUF catches everyone.

If we don’t do this, the per-gallon fuel tax will nab fewer of us over time and subsidize more who fall outside its reach. Face it, that model is doomed to fail.

Not just in the distant future, either. The trucking rules start kicking in by 2014, and many fleets will embrace fuel-saving technologies well before then to cut their diesel costs. That’s just around the corner for multi-year transportation legislation now making its way through Congress.

The car rules affect millions more vehicles, and while they have a later deadline their more aggressive goal also means manufacturers will have to embrace technology changes sooner rather than later.

Even with a focus on TUF-ness in fee collections, politicians can still posture and fight over how much to spend and tax, of course. But the fight no longer would leave out a growing percentage of users who don’t pay their share, and the debate would never again be just about whether to hike the gas tax.

-- Contact John D. Boyd at jboyd@joc.com. Follow him on Twitter www.twitter.com/jboydjoc

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