Industry girds for fight against trucks-only miles traveled tax

Lawmakers are looking for ways to fund a massive infrastructure spending package as gas tax revenue fails to pull its weight

A truck travels along I-95 in Maryland. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
A truck travels along I-95 in Maryland. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 18, 2021 at 7:00am

As lawmakers begin to drum up ways to raise revenue to pay for an expected massive infrastructure package, trucking groups are working yet again to bat down the idea of charging them fees per vehicle miles traveled.

“Hell no,” read the subject line of an email from one trucking group.

That group, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, sent a letter Tuesday to the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee warning they’d fight any proposal to impose a truck-only, vehicle miles traveled tax, saying such proposals are “controversial and discriminatory.”

“The inclusion of such a divisive policy in the next surface transportation reauthorization would instantly eliminate our support for the bill and likely destroy any hope for its passage,” wrote Todd Spencer, president and CEO of the organization, arguing such a move would be “a terrible way to demonstrate your support and appreciation” of truckers who kept the supply chain operating during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Separately, Bill Sullivan, executive vice president of advocacy for the American Trucking Associations, said trucking provides half the receipts from federal fuel taxes to the Highway Trust Fund, despite representing only four percent of vehicles on the road and driving nine percent of the miles traveled.

[Increasingly irrelevant gas tax awaits a better idea]

“Our industry has long said we are willing to pay our fair share to finance needed improvements to our infrastructure, and we support increasing user fees,” Sullivan said. “However, as we made clear when this type of tax was floated and scuttled last year, we are unwilling to be singled out with discriminatory truck-only fees to pay for our nation’s infrastructure needs and will strongly oppose any effort to do so.”

'Serious consideration'

The trucking industry’s opposition comes even after the ranking Republican on the Finance panel admitted that “there are a lot of senators who I think are giving (the idea of a truck VMT) serious consideration.”

“I’m not in favor of it,” said Sen. Michael D. Crapo, R-Idaho, who added ”I’m evaluating everything, but that’s not one of my preferred options.”

Finance Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said, “I won’t get into specifics, but the debate is underway.”

Lawmakers are exploring a variety of revenue-raising options in large part because of a reluctance to raise the federal gas tax, which through the Highway Trust Fund has paid for the highways since 1956 and transit since 1982. The tax hasn’t been increased since 1993, so it has not kept up with inflation. And with vehicles becoming increasingly fuel-efficient and automakers such as General Motors saying they’ll phase out gas-powered combustion engines altogether within the next 20 years, it faces looming irrelevance.

Privately, Republicans have expressed frustration that automobiles powered by gas pay the tax while electric vehicles and other alternative fuel vehicles don't. By finding an alternative that would charge non-gasoline powered vehicles, they say, they’ll make the system more fair and also place more of the tax burden on the alternative fuel vehicles more likely to actually use the roads in the future.

Lawmakers such as Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., the ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, have suggested a shift to a national vehicle miles traveled system, but while pilot VMT programs are underway in several states, many lawmakers, including Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., chairman of the committee, say the idea is not yet ready for full national implementation. However, he and other Democrats have acknowledged they are open to an eventual shift to a VMT-based tax. That system, however, would apply to all vehicles.

It's back

This isn’t the first time truckers have fought a truck-only proposal. The idea was floated by staff for then-Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo., but ultimately rejected in March 2020 by Sen. Charles E. Grassley, then chairman of the Finance Committee. Grassley told E&E News “we came to the conclusion that we would never get the vehicle miles tax for trucks included.”

Mike Matousek, manager of government affairs for the drivers association, said even though the idea was shot down last year, “nothing goes away.”

He said trucks already pay a heavy vehicle use tax of about $550 a year, a federal diesel tax of 24.3 cents a gallon, and a federal excise tax of 12 percent on the purchase of new trucks and trailers. Gasoline is taxed at 18.3 cents a gallon.

That doesn’t count the variety of state and local taxes that they pay.

Trucks, he said, were one of the few modes of transportation that did not receive federal assistance during the pandemic. The industry “couldn’t even get a couple hundred million for truck parking, which has been an issue for decades,” he said.

He said the larger problem is Congress’ complete unwillingness to address a trust fund that has faced a shortfall for 15 years. By singling truckers out, he said, “they’re asking us to clean up the mess that Congress created.”

“We’re not responsible for the deficit spending,” he said. “And we sure as hell shouldn’t be asked to pay for it all.”

Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.