Road revenue challenge: taxes and green vehicles

11:32 PM, Apr 17, 2013   |    comments
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Kirsten Donnelly fills up her tank in North Knoxville Wednesday

As the world of transportation becomes more and more efficient, experts say travelers will soon have to change the way they pay to commute.

Drivers pay a state and federal fuel tax on every gallon of gas, which transportation officials liken to a "user fee." Tennessee drivers pay 39.8 cents per gallon for regular gasoline, while diesel consumers pay 42.8 cents per gallon. For decades, those revenues have funded the state's road system, but transportation officials expect it won't last forever.

"As we go forward, we have electric vehicles, we have vehicles that are burning compressed natural gas," explained TDOT Commissioner John Schroer. "Were going to have to, ultimately, not next year, not the following year, look at alternate ways of funding how we repair and increase our transportation across the state."

"Two-thirds of all funds used to build and maintain roadways are derived through excise taxes on gasoline at either the state or federal level. That will not continue to work, it's simply a matter of arithmetic," Dr. Mark Burton told a panel of experts at UT Wednesday night. Burton serves as Director of Transportation Economics at UT, and spoke at the forum hosted by Baker Scholars.

"For four or five generations, that's how we've done it. We have simply relied on, primarily, excise taxes to generate user-based fees that we use to build the roads and bridges that we need to preserve mobility through motor vehicle use. It's a system that worked very well, but its one that cant be sustained in its current form," Burton told the crowd.

The panel, which included representatives from TDOT, AAA, the Chamber of Commerce, the Tennessee Trucking Association and UT, weighed ideas about alternative revenue sources in the future. They discussed the possibility of raising the fuel tax, the impact of tolls, and the concept of tying fees to the distance each individual vehicle travels.

"The true fairest user fee is vehicle miles traveled, without question, because you pay for what you [use]," Schroer said. "Think about this in your utility bills: don't you pay for what you use on your gas bill and your electric bill? Aren't we used to that? Isn't that something that is socially acceptable? But for some reason, it's not for our roads and I think that it should be."

Schroer says Tennessee roads are ranked third in the nation, and he wants the state to remain near the top moving forward.

"We've got a great infrastructure product. We maintain what we have first, which is why people know that we have great roads. We put emphasis on maintenance more than new capacity and we will continue to do that as we go forward."

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