Debate over road repair funds continues

Legislators look to prohibit research into mileage-based vehicle fees while researchers continue to push for their use.

by Logan Wroge

While Minnesota faces a $12 billion shortfall for transportation funding, state lawmakers and University of Minnesota researchers are debating sustainable solutions to fund transit needs.

But recently introduced legislation would prohibit the University and other institutions from using state funds to research and study mileage-based user fees, generating concern among some lawmakers and University faculty members.

“[Banning mileage-based fees research] would be a terrible precedent in the terms of interfering with academic freedom,” said Lee Munnich, a senior fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Mileage-based user fees are payments drivers must make when they use roads.

Rep. Bob Barrett, R-Lindstrom, authored the bill that prohibits funding for potential mileage-based research in the state. He said state dollars could instead be used to reduce tuition at the University.

Fees research often includes GPS data to track where and when people drive. Barrett said because of this, the fees raise privacy concerns.

“I don’t know if we want government to be that involved in our private lives, to know where we’re going and when we’re going,” he said.

The bill wouldn’t necessarily stop research on mileage-based user fees, but it would prevent state funding from going toward future research.

Munnich, who is the secretary-treasurer for the national Mileage-Based User Fee Alliance, said research on alternative transportation funding sources should be allowed because cars are becoming more fuel efficient and using alternative fuel sources.

Supporters of the fees view them as an alternative to a traditional sales tax attached to the price of a gallon of gasoline. In Minnesota, the current gas tax is 28.5 cents per gallon.

Other states across the country are considering implementing mileage-based user fees.

In Oregon, two pilot programs and several studies have researched the transportation fee since 2001. The Oregon state Legislature passed the Road Usage Charge Program, a voluntary program that requires drivers pay 1.5 cents per mile instead of a gas tax. The program will begin July 1.

Laurie McGinnis, director of the University’s Center for Transportation Studies, said the department receives funding from a variety of federal and state grants and programs, and in 2014 it obtained funds from 25 sources.

While Barrett’s bill would stop state funding from going toward research on mileage-based fees, Rep. Ron Erhardt, DFL-Edina, authored a piece of legislation that would appropriate funding to the Minnesota Department of Transportation for more research on the area.

Erhardt said the bill would expand on research MnDOT conducted in 2011-12. The 500-person study used smartphones to track where and when the participants had been driving.

Erhardt said GPS data that is collected now is more secure and said he supports this type of fee as it could be a potential solution to adequately fund the state’s transportation needs.

“If you have problems, you got to solve them,” Erhardt said. “This may not be the way, but we better find out because other people are doing it.”