ITS Berkeley Takes on Road Charge Discussion

April 19, 2019

As innovative technologies emerge in the transportation sphere, traditional funding sources are coming into question to repair aging infrastructure and new projects, and innovative methods are being explored, including road charge, at the UC Berkeley Institute of Transportation Studies by Professor Alexandre Bayen (ITS Director), Professor Susan Shaheen (Transportation Sustainability Research Center Co-Director), and doctoral students Edward (Teddy) Forscher and Jessica Lazarus.

“In today’s climate, practitioners, researchers, advocates, and policymakers are all looking for ways to capture fresh and appropriate sources to fund aging and new infrastructure, we’re here to help guide that discussion and offer solutions,” says Bayen. “Tackling these issues will require coordinated efforts and innovative thinking, which we can help provide.”

In their new report: An Equitable and Integrated Approach to Paying for Roads in a Time of Rapid Change, ITS Berkeley researchers outline a host of strategies for transportation funding based on transportation expert input and a concrete example from California’s Road Charge Pilot Program (RCPP).

“Carrying innovative pricing concepts forward will position localities and regions to be able to respond to the changing landscape of maintenance funding and foster innovate idea sharing across the nation and the globe,” says Shaheen. “The challenges facing cities, planners, and the private passenger and goods movement industries are significant, and as such no silver bullet exists.”

Shaheen added California is a prime climate for studying road charge with the state’s recent RCPP, as well as legislated gasoline excise tax and vehicle registration fee increases from Senate Bill (SB)1.

The report provides a brief overview of transportation user fees (historically and in a contemporary context) and includes discussion on how segmenting travel into three categories – long haul, the last mile, and at the curb – can create new categories for transportation pricing and access mechanisms.

Researchers also incorporated a case study based on California’s recent RCPP, which blends a long haul/last mile approach using a mileage-based user fee (MBUF), and it investigates distributional cost burdens under different pricing calibration scenarios.

“There are many ways to raise the same amount of money with a parametric structure, but compared to a gas tax and flat mileage-based fee, a parametric structure may produce a better distribution of cost burdens,” says Lazarus.

Specifically, the case study, using data provided by Caltrans’ RCPP, demonstrates the potential for designing road user charges based on measurable impacts of road use by different vehicle classes (weight class, vehicle use, level of automation, propulsion system, and value), embodying the user-pays principle to a greater extent than flat-rate gas taxes and MBUFs by aligning the distribution of the cost burden across road users according to their relative road use and greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition, technical, political, legal, and other considerations for implementing a MBUF are discussed, drawn from a literature review of current efforts; often these aspects can direct the development of a pricing mechanism as much if not more than empirically derived goals.

The study also shows how this approach can aid in the development of pricing mechanisms that move closer to the user-pays principle and how practitioners, researchers, advocates, and policymakers can use this document to better understand the tradeoffs present in transportation funding decisions, especially when planning over long time horizons in the midst of uncertainty.

“As the transportation ecosystem continues to evolve rapidly in tandem with consumer preferences, it will become increasingly important to manage and maintain infrastructure effectively,” says Forscher. “ Doing so will take coordinated efforts among public agencies and active participation by the private sector.”

He further explained with the advent of automated and autonomous vehicles — which are heavily reliant on credible road markings — keeping streets maintained will become more and more a private interest, as well as a public one.