The state fuel tax system is a cumbersome, inefficient relic long overdue for retirement. What if it could be replaced with a national road user charge that accurately and automatically charged truckers for actual miles traveled on public roads? Better still, what if that system could also do away with unfair truck-only fees and extend the levy to all road users in the name of congestion control?

Before you say “Pipe dream!„ take a look at what's going on in Europe. Last month, Germany began an automated toll collection system for trucks on all of its highways, and Austria will follow suited next month. By 2006 the U.K. will have an automated system to collect truck user fees for all of its roadways, France is currently debating a similar system, and Switzerland has had one in place since 2001.

While those are truck-only fees, the same technology — onboard computers, GPS and a variety of wireless data networks — is already being used to charge every motor vehicle for access to the center of London during peak traffic hours, and both Singapore and Rome use pay-to-enter schemes to control traffic within the most congested areas of those cities. Here in the U.S., user fees based on traffic volumes are also getting limited tests in California and New York.

According to a study just released by Deloitte Research, charging everyone directly for actual road use may be the most effective strategy available to fight the growing traffic congestion choking developed countries around the world. With today's technologies, the report points out, it is finally practical to implement that most basic economic principle — supply and demand — in allocation of road space.

The benefits for trucking could be substantial. Doing away with state fuel-tax calculation and reporting would remove a major administrative headache for fleets. The federal diesel tax, which is supposed to reflect truck road use and fund national highway construction, could also be replaced with a fee that directly reflects how and when roads are used.

It would also put the costs of maintaining our road system where they belong, asking all users, not just truckers, to pay their fair share based on how and when they travel those roads. More importantly, if user fees have a positive effect on traffic congestion, the benefits would also flow to all.

Of course we live in a country where the open road is seen as an integral part of our cultural heritage, and such a radical change in the way we allocate the cost of roads and traffic would require a similarly radical change in public opinion.

But if you think the problem of congestion isn't big enough to attract widespread support for a pay-as-you go scheme to combat it, you underestimate its cost in both dollars and quality of life. The report puts the cost of time and fuel wasted by congestion in the U.S. at $150 billion in 2001, and the amount of time spent by motorists in traffic jams at 3.5-billion hours/yr. and growing.

Maybe it's not just our outmoded state fuel tax system that needs replacement. Maybe we also need to update our attitudes on traffic and road use in general if we're going to avoid a gridlocked future.

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