Commercial Trucking: The Battle of the VMT Tax

Our highways and transit infrastructure are mainly funded through the Highway Trust Fund (HTF), which in turn is primarily funded by the federal motor fuel tax. Since 2001 the HTF has consistently spent more than it generates through highway and transit programs. The shortfall has been covered mainly by the $144 billion it’s received from the Treasury’s general fund. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the HTF will hit bottom by 2022. 

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso and Finance Committee member John Cornynhave proposed the S. 2302 bill which would impose a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) tax on commercial truckers. The bill is part of a three-prong approach, Barrasso and Cornyn are also looking to tax electric vehicles as well as index the motor fuels tax.

As cars increasingly become more efficient, and the use of electric cars become more prolific, fuel tax revenues decline accordingly. The tax on electric vehicles looks to regain the lost revenue, and with automakers planning to launch up to 100 new electric vehicles by 2023, it’s a good idea. But it’s a small piece of a massive puzzle.

Commercial trucks do take a heavier toll on our highways than lighter vehicles. Therefore, the VMT imposes a tax on the miles traveled. The heavier the truck, the more damage it does to our roads, which is why a scaled tax structure based on a truck’s configuration and weight. It sounds like a fair deal, those who do the most damage pay the highest bill. 

However, the industry argues, that they already pay a steeper sum than other highway users through fees, an excise tax on tires, and a heavier gasoline bill, paying six cents-per-gallon more than other motorists. Then there’s the question if the industry can support the increase, given the number of trucking companies that closed its doors in 2019, it’s a fair question. And lastly, could the tax be implemented in a fair and trustworthy manner? 

The CBO Report

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently released Issues and Options for a Tax on Vehicle Miles Traveled by Commercial Trucks. The report provides an analysis of the VMT tax, including the tax base, the rate structure, the revenue that would be generated, and the implementation methods.

Using data on 2017 truck traffic, the CBO estimated that a tax of 1 cent per mile on all roads would have raised approximately $2.6 billion if imposed on all commercial trucks. However, in order to cover $14.6 billion that truck owners paid in 2017, as well as their proportional share of the $13.5 billion deficit, the tax would need to be increased to 7.5 cents per mile, which would have generated a total of $19.4 billion. The CBO warns two behavioral responses would result: a reduction in overall freight shipments and a shift in some freight traffic from trucks to rail. 

Together, the gasoline and diesel taxes yielded close to 90 percent of the $40.9 billion in revenues credited to the trust fund in the fiscal year 2017. Of that amount, $25.9 billion (64 percent) came from gasoline taxes and $9.8 billion (24 percent) from diesel fuel taxes. The three taxes that apply to trucks and other large vehicles generated revenues totaling $5.2 billion.

Capital and Implementation Costs

Three methods of implementation are offered: 

  • Electronic logging devices (ELD) installed in cars (capital costs would depend on the set of trucks included in the tax base, intermediate enforcement costs)
  • Collection booths or RFID readers on road gantries (significant capital costs, low enforcement costs) 
  • Periodic odometer reporting (no capital costs, high enforcement costs)

Although costs are uncertain, capital and implementation costs would, of course, cannibalize a portion of the revenue.

The Battle

The American Trucking Associations wants to raise fuel taxes by 5 cents annually over four years, which would bring in $340 billion over ten years. Although it continues to lack Senate support, The American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) advocates for both an increased motor fuel tax and the VMT tax.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association(OOIDA) members aren’t mincing their words. In a letter written on February 24th to Chairmen Grassley and Barrasso, the OOIDA says the ARTBAs support of the VMT tax is “shameless, and exposes the organization’s ignorance.” Chris Spear, President of the American Trucking Associations, and Sheila Foertsch of the Wyoming Trucking Association call the tax discriminatory

Trucking-aligned farm groupswant broad-based funding mechanisms and caution the VMT would place a disproportionate share of the burden on freight transportation and would leave U.S. agriculture at a competitive disadvantage against foreign competitors.

As the ARTBA pointed out in their letter, if a controversy-free solution existed, it would have been enacted years ago. But America’s infrastructure is failing, and transportation investment is coming up short by the tune of $1.1 trillion by 2025.  According to the American Society of Civil Engineers’failure to Act study, by 2025, the nation will have lost almost $800 billion in GDP and have 440,000 fewer jobs due to transportation system deficiencies. Time is of the essence.