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Aug. 1, 2005

Public Policy Center Gets $16.5 Million Highway Study Grant

The University of Iowa Public Policy Center will receive a $16.5 million federal grant over the next four years to test a new mileage-based approach to financing public roads.

Funding for the study -- which will look at charging road users for miles actually driven -- is included in a $286.5 billion highway and mass transit bill passed July 29 by Congress.

David Forkenbrock, professor of urban and regional planning and center director, observed, "Motor fuel taxes have served quite well. Today, road users are charged roughly on the basis of the amount of travel conducted on the public road system. There are, however, several major shortcomings with motor fuel taxes.

"First, the increasing fuel efficiency of the nation's vehicle fleet is very positive, but it means lower receipts per mile traveled," he said. "A more serious revenue threat is that in future years, electric hybrid and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, as well as those with other energy-conserving propulsion systems, will become more commonplace."

Forkenbrock, who also serves as professor of civil and environmental engineering in the UI College of Engineering, noted that the various elements of his proposed highway finance system have already undergone significant study.

Working in conjunction with a special consortium of 15 states, including Iowa, Forkenbrock -- along with UI electrical and computer engineering professor Jon Kuhl and other colleagues -- has worked for seven years to design a study of a new approach that would eventually replace the fuel tax with a user charge. The user charge would be based on the number of miles actually traveled on public roadways. If it is successful, a stable revenue stream to finance transportation facilities will be assured, regardless of the type of vehicle propulsion system used, he said. At the heart of the approach is a small, inexpensive on-board storage device incorporated into new vehicles that records the total amount of road user fees owed, based on a per-mile rate set by each state.

"A central feature of the study of this new approach is the protection of the privacy of the traveling public," he said. Where or when travel has occurred is not recorded. User convenience also is a key design objective. Periodically, the vehicle operator uploads the road use charge owed. In return, he or she receives a bill that will be similar to the amount of the fuel tax paid now. If successful, the new approach would be implemented gradually over a number of years as newer vehicles replace older vehicles in the nation's vehicle fleet.

The field test will take place in six cities located in different regions of the United States. Participants will be offered one-year leases on specially equipped new vehicles and be asked to discuss how satisfied they are with the fairness, convenience, reliability and privacy protection of the new approach. Following the test, Forkenbrock and his colleagues will report their findings to the secretaries of the U.S. Treasury and Transportation departments.

Forkenbrock said, "This is a wonderful opportunity for the University of Iowa to play a leadership role in assuring that the necessary revenue is available to ensure quality transportation services for the traveling public in the decades ahead. We are especially grateful to the U.S. Department of Transportation, Sen. Grassley and Congressman Jim Leach who believed in the worth of this project and worked hard to support it."

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: George McCrory, 319-384-0012, george-mccrory@uiowa.edu