Paying for roads based on usage makes intellectual sense, but so far drivers are unconvinced that tracking their movements would ever be OK

In theory, there is a simple solution to the nation’s backlog of needed road projects and the declining value of fuel taxes: drivers should pay a user fee. We should all chip in to our collective coffers according to how many miles we drive, not how many gallons it takes to get where we’re going. Such a system would level the playing field between the Prius and the pickup and more fairly distribute the costs of up-keeping shared resources. The more you use roads, the more you help pay for them.

The idea has just one hitch: people are creeped out by it. Or, more precisely, as Trey Baker has found among many drivers, especially in rural areas and from older generations: "There is just this immediate visceral hatred of the concept that you’re going to put something in my car," he says.

Most blueprints for a user fee would keep track of your vehicle miles traveled with some sort of measurement in your car, either through an attachment to your odometer or some more sophisticated device that distinguishes between locations (for instance, if you have a mile-long private driveway, you don’t need to pay anyone else to maintain it).

The Texas Transportation Institute, where Baker is an associate researcher, has conducted focus groups and research on public perceptions of the VMT fee. And Baker has concluded that the main obstacle to a future of mileage fees is not the technology; it’s the people.

"There’s a lot of folks, it doesn’t matter what you tell them will be collected, there’s this insidious suspicion," he says. "It doesn’t matter what sort of location encryption is being used, it doesn’t matter if the data upload is only occurring once a month. There’s a perception that they’re being actively tracked whenever they get in a car, that government is watching them go down the road. Not everybody has that, but we did get a lot of that: Total distrust."

This reaction has been pretty universal in other pilot programs and studies across the country. So if policymakers did want to move to a VMT fee, what could be done to assuage all these suspicious people?

Baker admits that some drivers will just never come on board, and perhaps those people should be given the option to play some flat alternative fee (Lose the ticket showing how many hours you’ve been parked at the mall? Fine, you owe $20). For the rest of the population, there may be a couple of other ideas. Part of the challenge is that so many people find government either insidious, incompetent or corrupt.

"I can’t tell you how many times the Bridge to Nowhere came up in focus groups when we were talking about this," Baker says. "'We don’t trust elected officials to spend money now, why are they going to spend some new tax money even better?'"

So perhaps, Baker posits, we could remove government as the face of the VMT fee. What if the fee were tracked and collected not through a government-issued device, but through a multi-purpose, private-sector app or tool that collects your user fee while also giving you driving directions and tracking your fuel efficiency? Or what if the device came as a standard feature developed and included by carmakers? Would you trust Toyota more than Uncle Sam?

One other idea is to enlist the help of advocates that communities already trust.

"This whole idea of going to institutions that people are comfortable with and having a discussion at the local level, that’s something that folks see as a real possibility," Baker says. "The key is basically to talk to the people who the public are going to go to with questions. I don’t know if that’s churches or what, but people are going to somebody when they have a problem. And who is that?"

The whole idea, at least in theory, isn’t designed to give the government your personal driving information; it’s to give your community resources to fix local roads. But maybe transportation officials aren’t the best people to explain that. The thought is intriguing, if a little diabolical: Could schools, churches and doctors help make the case for road user fees? Or is that just plain creepy, too?

Photo credit: Joshua Lott/Reuters

About the Author

Emily Badger

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.

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