Thursday, August 13, 2009

Our electric future

Recent reports by General Motors and Nissan about their electric vehicles, Volt and Leaf, underscore the urgency required by U.S. governments to prepare for an alternative transportation funding system.

Existing fuel tax collections, in excess of $100 billion per year, provide an estimated 60 percent of the revenue for highways with registration fees, truck taxes and tolls providing the rest.

In 2006, the Transportation Research Board (TRB) issued a report on alternative transportation funding and estimated we have a 15-year window for the existing system to remain viable. After that, emerging technologies, reduced fuel consumption and new energy or environmental regulations could upset the apple cart.

Tolling, according to TRB, will play a major role in funding future highway projects. However, all roads will not be toll roads.

The most promising scenario offered by the TRB committee is the idea of mileage-based fees. Under this scenario, all vehicles would be assessed a user fee based on mileage and what roads used.

A mileage based system could be used to fund all highways, not just expressways. Technology developed for electronic toll collection could be adapted for a more general application.

Such a paradigm shift would require a national effort coordinated with local, state and federal agencies. That fact alone makes the 15-year window look challenging at best.

Perhaps the perfect storm for such a change is upon us. Existing highway funding systems are failing. Transportation agencies are cutting work programs, services and people. Auto makers, those left standing, are restructuring how they will do business in the future. Governments at all levels are rethinking how they will fund anything in the future.

General Motors and Nissan, and all the others, are ready. Those hundreds of miles to an amp vehicles are coming. Will the governments charged with providing highway infrastructure in this new electric world be ready?

David Fierro is a transportation public relations consultant. He is a former newspaper and magazine editor and worked for both the Florida and Virginia departments of transportation.

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