Freight Rail Policy Stance: The United States has historically relied upon a “user-pays” system to fund investments in public road and bridge infrastructure. However, revenues into the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) today are insufficient to cover the costs to maintain and repair the nation’s deteriorating bridges and roads, leaving taxpayers to cover the multi-billion dollar shortfall each year. Congress must initiate a national, bipartisan effort to ensure the users of highway infrastructure pay to maintain that infrastructure.
Freight railroads — not taxpayers — pay for the maintenance and improvement of the nation’s nearly 140,000-mile rail network, investing well above $20 billion a year over the past five years into their infrastructure and equipment to directly benefit shippers, consumers and the passenger rail systems that operate on freight rail tracks. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), in their 2021 assessment of U.S. infrastructure, recognized the impact of these investments, awarding rail the highest grade of all American infrastructure for the second consecutive time.
Roads and bridges are another story. The ASCE, in that same assessment, gave roads a “D” grade, finding that one of every five miles of highway pavement was in poor condition and that there was a growing multi-billion dollar backlog of needed repairs to these damaged roads. To make matters worse, ASCE found that about half of U.S. bridges are either structurally deficient or over 50 years old.
How Road & Bridge Funding Currently Works
The HTF is the financial mechanism for building, maintaining, and repairing our nation’s roads and bridges. Since the 1950s, drivers of motor vehicles and trucks have paid federal and state taxes on the purchase of each gallon of gasoline or diesel fuel to support the HTF. Although this user-pays system worked for more than half of a century, gas taxes have failed to keep up with highway maintenance costs, changing fuel prices, and more fuel-efficient vehicles.
The current tax of 18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline and 24.4 cents per gallon of diesel fuel was last increased in 1993 and proves less effective each year. The lack of adequate revenue raised for the HTF is partly the result of trucks weighing 80,000 pounds. Today, these large trucks don’t come close to paying for the damage they cause to our public highway system. The HTF’s continued shortfalls have forced policymakers to transfer a total of $275 billion of general taxpayer funds to repair roads and bridges since 2008, including requiring a transfer of $118 billion in the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which will only cover the HTF shortfall through 2026.
To address the near-term solvency of the HTF, Congress should increase the gas tax. However, Congress must find a reliable, long-term funding solution to maintain and improve our nation’s roads and bridges and restore a user-pays system.
A New Funding Model
A VMT that takes into account vehicle weight or axle count offers the opportunity to create a more equitable system of funding public road and bridge infrastructure by ensuring that all passenger and commercial vehicles pay for their use. The benefits of a VMT include:
- Incorporating a Sustainable Funding Model: Researchers at the Brookings Institute, the University of Arizona, and the University of Houston have shown that financing highway expenditures by charging drivers and truckers for the distance they drive in the form of a VMT is a more sustainable funding model than gas taxes. Additionally, the Government Accountability Office noted that “mileage-based user fee initiatives in the U.S. and abroad show that such fees can lead to more equitable and efficient use of roadways by charging drivers based on their actual road use and by providing pricing incentives to reduce road use.”
- Restoring Modal Equity: Implementation of a VMT would rebalance the ongoing modal inequity occurring in the freight transportation market stemming from the trucking industry’s underpayment into the HTF. Freight railroads are currently at a competitive disadvantage because they fully fund their infrastructure, whereas large trucks underpay their federal cost responsibility by around 27 cents per gallon of fuel and therefore can offer artificially deflated costs. Requiring trucks to pay their fair share will rebalance the playing field between trucks and trains.
The Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act
Freight railroads applaud Congress for taking significant steps in IIJA to require those who use — and damage — our nation’s infrastructure to pay their fair share and restore a user-pays system. These actions include:
- A Highway Cost Allocation Study: This study, undertaken in coordination with State departments of transportation, will determine the direct costs of highway use by various types of users, including vehicles of different dimensions, weights, and number of axles. This study will also review a broad range of costs, such as those related to safety, emissions, congestion, and noise, to determine the proportionate share of the costs attributable to each class of highway user. The study will also compare those costs with the user fee revenue contributed to the HTF by those users. Upon completion of this study, DOT will develop recommendations for a set of revenue options to fully cover the costs occasioned by highway users.
- A National Motor Vehicle Per-Mile User Fee (VMT) Pilot: Congress provided a total of $50 million over five years to undertake a voluntary pilot program which will: test the design, acceptance, implementation, and financial sustainability of a national VMT; address the need for additional revenue for surface transportation infrastructure; and provide recommendations. Specifically, this program will test various methods to track vehicle miles traveled and include both passenger and commercial motor vehicles. Finally, as part of this effort, DOT will establish and test varying VMT fees each year for passenger motor vehicles, light trucks, and medium- and heavy-duty trucks to reflect estimated impacts on infrastructure, safety, congestion, and the environment.
- Strategic Innovation for Revenue Collection: This grant program will provide a total of $75 million over five years for pilot projects at the State, local, and regional level to test the design, acceptance, equity, and implementation of a road usage fee and other user-based alternative revenue mechanisms to maintain the long-term solvency of the HTF. This program should further ongoing research conducted by the Federal Highway Administration under the Surface Transportation System Funding Alternatives program, which was authorized in the FAST Act and provided a total of $73.7 million to 37 projects across the nation to test the design, implementation, and acceptance of user-based systems, such as a mileage-based fee.
These programs undertaken pursuant to IIJA will provide essential information to Congress on how to best develop a sustainable, long-term solution for the solvency of the HTF, including the implementation of a VMT.