Which way on VMT?
Baker vetoes fed-funded study, but MassDOT contract keeps options open
MAYBE THE STATE Department of Transportation didn’t get the memo.
In August, Gov. Charlie Baker vetoed a provision in a transportation bond bill directing the Transportation Department to seek federal funding for a pilot program testing a system that would charge drivers based on vehicle miles traveled, or VMT. Baker called VMT a tax, and said he was having none of that.
Four months earlier, however, Baker’s own transportation department signed a three-year, $1.5 million contract with Jacobs Engineering Group of Boston to do a series of research projects for the agency. The specific projects weren’t identified, but the contract listed a number of possibilities, including identifying new toll locations and analysis of “vehicle miles traveled and congestion pricing scenarios.”
VMT is seen as an alternative to the gas tax, while congestion pricing is an approach to traffic management that relies on raising toll rates for those who drive during morning and afternoon commutes when traffic is heaviest.
One State House official wondered why Baker’s DOT was willing to use tax dollars for a possible study on VMT but the governor himself wasn’t willing to seek federal funding for such a study.
Jacque Goddard, a DOT spokeswoman, told CommonWealth the Channel 4 story was much ado about nothing. She said the contract signed by the Baker administration in May was an update to an earlier contract negotiated by the administration of former governor Deval Patrick. She said the same language was incorporated in the new contract even though the Baker administration has no intention of pursuing congestion pricing or VMT.
Transportation experts say it makes sense to study VMT as an alternative to the gas tax. Indeed, a VMT approach was endorsed 10 years ago by the bipartisan Transportation Finance Commission.
“The gas tax has been a convenient means of charging road users for decades in Massachusetts and across the US, but all of our otherwise desirable efforts to reduce fuel consumption will result in less revenue from this source,” the commission said in its report. “Now, modern technology already allows user fees to be collected without drivers needing to slow down or stop. With such technology, our roads and bridges can be treated like other utilities — gas, electricity, water — where everyone pays in small increments based on their actual usage.”Baker said he opposed doing such a study partly because he is opposed to new taxes and fees and partly because he didn’t think it was necessary since other states are already doing similar studies. In his written veto message, Baker didn’t mention his opposition to new taxes. Instead, he said he wouldn’t launch a VMT study until he had first tallied up the costs, identified technologies that would be needed, and dealt with any privacy concerns. He said he would also oppose any VMT program that would impose a greater burden on drivers than the existing gasoline tax.
All of those concerns, of course, could be addressed by a VMT pilot project.