Reuters

It's not too soon to start discussing how to keep the Highway Trust Fund from bankruptcy.

The Highway Trust Fund, America's primary source of transportation funding, is expected to go bankrupt by 2015. That makes 2014 a critical year for lawmakers to overhaul the busted gas tax system that populates the trust fund. Considering the pace of Congressional action, it's not too early to get that conversation going, and last week two leading newspapers did just that.

The Washington Post editorial staff embraced two solutions recently proposed by Congressman Earl Blumenauer. The first is simply to raise the gas tax 15 cents a gallon over the next three years then tie it to inflation so it doesn't lose purchasing power. The second is an alternative system that charges a tiny fee for every mile driven (Blumenauer's home state of Oregon has been testing such a mileage-fee system for years).

The Post believes both ideas hold promise:

A spokesman for the House Transportation Committee told us that lawmakers "will look at all options for addressing our surface transportation infrastructure" in the coming months. Mr. Blumenauer has provided two that should top their list.

Meanwhile, energy scholar Michael Webber argued in a New York Times op-ed that neither of Blumenauer's options holds the answer. Webber calls a gas tax hike "politically untenable" — and considering it hasn't gone up since 1993, it's hard to argue that point. He also conjures up the standard opposition to a mileage fee system, which is that the GPS devices used to monitor travel raises concerns about privacy and civil liberties.

Instead, Webber pushes for a "ton mile" fee that charges drivers based on both mileage traveled and vehicle weight. He argues that such a system addresses the funding shortfall (with car owners paying about $50 a year) as well as privacy concerns (the fee can be assessed by an odometer reading during sticker renewal). It's also a more equitable system, as trucks inflict much more damage on roads than standard cars do.

The advantages to a ton-mile fee don't stop there, writes Webber:

Switching to a ton mile fee solves several problems at once: It raises the revenues we need for our transportation projects while ensuring that electric and natural gas vehicles don’t get a free pass. It would also encourage people to drive smaller cars fewer miles, which would achieve additional benefits like reduced petroleum consumption, emissions, traffic congestion and wear and tear on the roads and highways.

The best way forward probably involves some combination of all three proposals. In the short term, there's no way around a gas tax increase. It's far too late in the game to implement an entirely new system, and while no politician enjoys raising taxes, the individual burden to make up the present shortfall is minimal. By one recent estimate, the gas tax could become solvent again if drivers paid just $4.66 more a month.

In the long-term — assuming federal transportation funding even has a long-term future — the gas tax likely needs to be replaced. A vehicle-mileage system will require a considerable initial investment to get going, and will probably cost more to operate than the extremely convenient gas tax system even once it's running. Still, it's the best alternative out there.

The chief beauty of the mileage fee system is that it's adjustable. Heavier cars can pay more for mile (incorporating Webber's concern); congestion charges can be applied if we want to discourage rush-hour driving (or driving in general); electric cars can pay less if we want to encourage greener travel; and so on. The privacy issues won't go away, but they're not insurmountable; Oregon's pilot program has several mileage tracking options for drivers, including a non-intrusive odometer reading.

A mileage fee system helps drivers recognize that roads, to some extent, are a utility that we consume — just like television or electricity. Failure to make that connection is one reason people are opposed to higher gas taxes. American drivers pay much less for roads than they should; as things stand, many people pay about as much to use roads each year as they pay for a common utility bill each month.

The government has always had a responsibility to provide key trunk roads as an essential public service. That mandate will continue in perpetuity. How large we want the rest of the road network to be, and how we're all going to chip in to maintain it, is a conversation that's been delayed far too long.

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