States are exploring new ways to pay for transportation. Our latest research shows addressing public opinion will be key

As states explore alternatives to the cash-strapped fuel tax revenue model that funds state transportation systems, new research from the Eastern Transportation Coalition says user fees offer a workable solution—but public opinion must first be addressed.

“Mileage-based user fees are a viable option,” said Patricia Hendren, Executive Director of the Coalition, which focuses on solving transportation challenges along the Eastern Seaboard. “The public is open to the ‘user pays’ principle and the technological capabilities exist, but our research highlights important issues to consider before implementation.”

One issue is the public generally doesn’t view transportation funding as an urgent need, according to the Coalition’s recently published report on its 2019 passenger vehicle pilots in Delaware and Pennsylvania, as well as early results from its 2020-2021 passenger vehicle pilots in Delaware, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and New Jersey. Guided by experts from Jacobs, this work includes statewide surveys, focus groups, and data analysis.

In Delaware and Pennsylvania, 74% of residents surveyed during the 2019 pilot believed transportation funding was increasing or staying the same, even though funding was actually decreasing. At the same time, 66% of residents held positive perceptions of their state’s road conditions. Together, these numbers suggest policymakers may find it challenging to discuss new funding approaches without first alerting residents to the inability of the fuel tax to keep up with road maintenance needs.

The public’s intuitive understanding of a “pay for what you use” approach may be a place to start. Nearly two-thirds of the general public—61%—say “pay for what you use” would be a reason to support a mileage-based user fee (MBUF) model, according to statewide surveys the Coalition conducted. After experiencing the pilot, 83% of 2019 pilot participants said MBUF was as fair or more fair than the fuel tax.

Pilot participants also showed an openness to mileage reporting technology. While many participants expressed early concerns about privacy and reporting accuracy, concerns fell significantly as participants used MBUF technology. During the 2019 pilot, participants ranking privacy as a high concern dropped from 49% to 20%. Preliminary data from the 2020-2021 pilot suggest similar results.

“We appreciate the Coalition’s efforts to capture this vital information.  It’s important for us to hear from our customers so we can make data-driven decisions about the future of transportation funding,” said Nicole Majeski, Secretary of the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT). DelDOT has partnered with the Coalition since 2017 to secure funding from Congressional grants set aside to study fuel tax alternatives.

Secretary of Transportation for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation Yassmin Gramian echoed the need for real-world research.

“We are committed to providing a transportation system that serves all Pennsylvanians,” Gramian said.  “As part of our Pathways program we’re studying many different options, including mileage-based user fees, to find reliable funding approaches for our residents. Studies like these from the Coalition provide important data for making smart, sustainable decisions.”

Pilots provide the ability to explore public misconceptions about MBUF and test whether MBUF can replace the fuel tax, Hendren noted. Pilots also allow policymakers to explore implementation costs, logistics, equity, and other issues.

“Data-based decision making is critical as policymakers consider a path forward,” Hendren said. “We believe our research plays an important role in that process.”

For more information about the Coalition’s findings, visit https://tetcoalitionmbuf.org/findings/.

About the Eastern Transportation Coalition: The Eastern Transportation Coalition is a partnership of 17 states and Washington, D.C. focused on bringing public and private stakeholders together to solve transportation problems. For over 25 years, the Coalition has pushed innovation in incident management, traveler information, emergency management, supply chain performance, freight planning and truck parking, toll reciprocity, connected and autonomous vehicles, and funding alternatives. As a nonpartisan independent partnership, the Coalition is dedicated to advancing the national conversation around mileage-based user fees (MBUF) through real-world pilots, education, and outreach. The unique characteristics of the Eastern Seaboard – such as significant cross-state travel, numerous toll facilities, and several major truck corridors – make it a natural testing ground for the potential challenges of implementing MBUF nationally. The Coalition is neutral regarding MBUF as the ultimate solution for transportation funding but wants to ensure the Eastern Seaboard is part of the national discussion.

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