How would you feel if, on top of that, all freeways were toll roads, not just the carpool lanes but all lanes, and if the tolls would be more expensive during times when the traffic was heavy?
I can imagine your reaction. You’re muttering something about governments always wanting to tax anything that moves, and your car probably moves a lot.
Now, how do you feel?
The subject came up in a recent Deseret News/KSL editorial board meeting with Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, to discuss his budget proposal to the Legislature. On page 58, he talks about the need to change how the state collects money to pay for road and highway repairs and construction. The gas tax, which funds a good chunk of this, is no longer keeping up with needs because people are driving more fuel-efficient cars, and because some of us are buying electric cars or hybrids.
“A new mechanism,” the budget document says, “should include a mix of alternatives such as direct mileage-based charges, congestion pricing, expanded tolling, registration fees, and fuel taxes.”
Utah isn’t the only state going down this road, but that won’t make the transition any easier.
“They are all unpopular, and sometimes we have to make unpopular decisions because that’s the right thing to do,” Cox said when I asked him about it. “However, it won’t be something that just happens from one day to the next.”
None of this is entirely new. The state already has what it calls a “road usage charge program” in place,” with a goal of moving all vehicles off fuel and sales taxes by the end of 2031. Already, the owners of electric and hybrid cars have the option of being charged 1.5 cents per mile to offset the extra cost of registering those vehicles.
But operating a pilot program for a few drivers is one thing (UDOT estimates only 2% of registered vehicles in Utah are electric, hybrid or use some other alternative fuels), changing everything over to tolls and mileage counters is quite another. 2031 may be too soon.
Not that it isn’t a good idea. Gas taxes are becoming increasingly unfair. People who can afford only old, gas-guzzling cars pay more of it, because they fill up more often, than do wealthier people who can buy new fuel-efficient cars.
Tolls and mileage counters would empower car owners, especially if the tolls were variable. Drivers would be charged less during off-peak, low traffic times, and more during rush hour. People would learn to pay less by delaying trips until the roads were clear. Mileage counters might encourage car pools and prompt people to consolidate trips.
Still, making this change would be a huge legislative lift. Lawmakers saw what happened last year when they botched tax reform. The public organized a repeal effort that forced them into a hasty retreat. Tolling all freeways and installing transponders in every car could backfire, as well.
The biggest inhibitor may be the fact gas prices are below $2 a gallon in some places. As long as gas remains cheap and plentiful, the market will see little reason to change. But that doesn’t alter the fact gas taxes are losing ground as a revenue generator.
Washington state, Illinois and Oregon, among other states, are considering similar moves. The way we pay for roads may be on the verge of a big structural change in coming years.
Cox said Utah probably won’t see any drastic moves in this regard during the upcoming legislative session, although he said high-level discussions are underway.
But don’t be surprised when it suddenly pops up in a year or two and you find yourself paying for roads in entirely new and, perhaps, unpopular ways.