Georgia may charge motorists by the mile to pay for road work

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

When you fill up your tank, you pay 29 cents a gallon in state gas taxes, plus an additional 18 cents in federal taxes. The money pays for billions of dollars in highway construction and maintenance across Georgia.

That system for funding road construction has worked for decades. But it’s expected to fall apart in coming decades as fuel efficiency increases and electric vehicles expand their share of traffic on the road. As people buy less gasoline, how will governments pay for road construction and maintenance?

A committee of Georgia lawmakers has been meeting for months to try to answer that question. One option under consideration: charging motorists by the mile.

A “mileage-based user fee” would charge motorists for every mile they travel. The more you drive, the more you’d pay.

It sounds simple, but there are numerous complications. Who would collect the mileage data? How would motorists pay? Should heavier vehicles — such as semi-trucks, which take a greater toll on roads — pay the same rate as passenger cars? How would governments ensure everyone pays their fair share? How will they charge out-of-state motorists who use Georgia roads? How will they protect motorists’ privacy?

Those are some of the questions the Joint Study Committee on the Electrification of Transportation has been kicking around. Next year the Georgia Department of Transportation will ask some motorists to participate in a voluntary pilot program to begin answering them.

The same conversations are taking place elsewhere. Most states and the federal government are studying ways to implement mileage-based user fees.

Three states — Oregon, Utah and Virginia — have already implemented fees based on vehicle miles traveled. More are expected to follow suit in the coming years.

One of the biggest hurdles to such a fee: resistance from motorists. Right now, most motorists don’t realize they’re paying for road construction every time they pay for gasoline, Kary Witt, a vice president of the engineering firm HNTB, told the committee Wednesday. The tax is out of sight, out of mind (in recent months Gov. Brian Kemp has suspended the state gas tax to combat inflation).

But charging motorists by the mile would likely make the cost front and center every time motorists pay the tax — possibly through a regular invoice.

Witt advised lawmakers to educate voters about why a mileage fee is needed before they implement such a plan.

“The main message of the education program is, there are no free roads,” Witt said. “This is just a different way of paying.”

Don’t expect to pay a mileage fee any time soon. The committee expects to submit some preliminary recommendations in December. But many of the details are likely to be hashed out in the future.

“We are at the very front edge of all this,” state Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, chairman of the committee, said Wednesday. “But it seems like the faster we can figure it out, the better.”