Road-Usage Charging (RUC) Secrets to Success

Road-Usage Charging (RUC) Secrets to Success
ging ging fernandez
Road-usage charging (RUC) programs are gaining popularity as a means of paying for America’s surface trans­porta­tion system. But to succeed, states and the federal government must transition to RUC carefully and purpose­fully. 

Governments and automakers are racing to address climate concerns and meet evolving consumer demands for cleaner and more fuel-efficient vehicles. But, it’s a blow to the gas tax’s viability. To address this looming fiscal challenge, road-usage charges (RUC) have emerged as a powerful policy tool. A RUC system, sometimes referred to as vehicle miles traveled (VMT) fees or mileage-based user fees (MBUF), logs miles traveled and implements pricing based on actual usage of the system, sometimes using innovative technology.

RUC has the potential to provide sustainable trans­porta­tion funding while trans­form­ing the rela­tion­ship between road users and government. But every state is unique—with different policy objectives, fiscal constraints and infra­struc­ture challenges—so RUC imple­men­ta­tion is not a ‘one size fits all’ solution. Each program must be designed to answer questions of local concern and provide relevant inputs to poli­cy­mak­ers.

As a leader in the research, pilot testing and advancement of RUC in the U.S. and abroad, CDM Smith brings experience-based insights across a broad range of disciplines and geographies. Ging Ging Fernandez is one of the firm’s top experts; she understands the interwoven policy, commu­ni­ca­tion, and technical elements required for RUC to advance.

Here’s her advice on a four-pronged approach for success.

Invest in Stakeholder Engagement to Boost Under­stand­ing 

Public outreach & stakeholdersPublic opinion research has consis­tently revealed a lack of under­stand­ing of how trans­porta­tion is funded and confusion about the amount and purpose of gas taxes. Effective commu­ni­ca­tion at the outset is arguably most important—and most challenging—for success­fully deploying a RUC program. 

“To build under­stand­ing, it’s critical to understand the environment that influences deci­sion­mak­ers,” says Fernandez. “Start with the stake­hold­ers who might be first-in-line for questions from the public, like elected officials or department heads. Then broaden your approach until each group has been commu­ni­cated with.”

Here are some other key strategies to keep in mind:

  • Early and ongoing engagement with key stake­hold­ers and orga­ni­za­tions will help you to start identifying concerns and informing the approach to resolving concerns. Fernandez suggests building a roadmap that explains the strategy and benefits to key partners and details how a given state can right-size a RUC system to fit their circum­stances. The impli­ca­tions of RUC to stake­hold­ers will vary signif­i­cantly from state to state, but “the key is providing the correct level of information and asking the right questions at the right time,” she says.

  • Develop a robust commu­ni­ca­tion plan with clear, concise, relatable messaging that is grounded in your state’s vision and values. Materials that illustrate funding challenges in easy-to-understand formats (like study-specific websites, fact sheets, legislative briefings, presen­ta­tions, media info­graph­ics and interactive calculators) should be utilized.

Outreach like the largest-scale RUC demonstration in the country can also be hugely helpful: “Giving drivers the chance to see their own data and determine what personal impact a RUC system would have on them is one of the most effective ways to improve under­stand­ing of the issue and the possible solutions,” Fernandez says. 

The implications of RUC will vary significantly from state to state, but the key is providing the correct level of information and asking the right questions at the right time.
ging ging fernandez

Shape RUC to Fit Local Policy Objectives

Local policy objectives Many of the compli­ca­tions related to tran­si­tion­ing from the gas tax to a RUC are policy-based: Which vehicles should pay RUC? Will RUC revenue be used only for highway-related purposes (as is the case with the state gas tax today) or can it be expanded to include funding for other projects? What are the equity impacts to different user groups? What are the roles of different govern­men­tal entities in operating a RUC program?

To answer these questions and others, carefully consider possible program design elements and any related impacts that might be felt. 

Here are some key strategies to keep in mind:

  • Address and solve for the top concerns and questions in your community. Recently, CDM Smith and Hawaii DOT completed the largest-scale RUC demon­stra­tion in the country, reaching thousands of households across the state. Fernandez credits HDOT’s dedication to listening to the public’s concerns. “Trans­parency is especially important in Hawaii, where the state has specific envi­ron­men­tal sustain­abil­ity goals and socio-economic concerns that are top of mind for residents and poli­cy­mak­ers.” Fernandez says that by having conver­sa­tions about policy objectives and challenges early on with Hawaii’s motorists, the team was able to incorporate design features into a demon­stra­tion that directly addressed some of the major concerns expressed.”
  • Consider imple­men­ta­tion options that allow RUC to gradually scale up, offering drivers an opportunity to try the system and recommend further improve­ments while RUC is still in an early-imple­men­ta­tion stage.

Identify the 'Right' Technology Approach

TechnologyOnce the policy is understood, technology can bring RUC concepts to life, but there’s no one model for how a system should be designed. It’s important to focus on system design and technology choices that support your state’s underlying objectives.

Here are some other key strategies to keep in mind:

  • Choice improves user acceptance. Providing a good mix of technology options to report mileage allows drivers to decide for themselves which trade-offs to make according to their needs, preferences, abilities and sensi­tiv­i­ties. Consider a state specific technology assessment that weighs the benefits and challenges of various options and allows users to select and provide feedback on their best fit. 

  • Prioritize technology options that cater to users’ #1 concern. For many motorists, the RUC concept raises concerns over how to protect sensitive personal information. Poli­cy­mak­ers can protect privacy in law and also through careful system design. For example, Fernandez suggests considering offering mileage-reporting methods that do not require information about location of travel. “That way, the only data the state receives is the total number of miles driven—not when or where they occurred,” she says. 

  • Stay abreast of emerging tech­nolo­gies and evaluate their feasibility, viability and potential for supporting your objectives. Keep an inventory of emerging systems and new partners along with an analysis of benefits, drawbacks, challenges and oppor­tu­ni­ties they present that could help you advance your state’s RUC concept.

Build Momentum by Expanding Your Networks

Expand your networkRUC projects include a full range of research, analysis and guidance, along with financial consid­er­a­tions and technical design of imple­men­ta­tion approaches. Bringing in collab­o­ra­tors can provide different perspec­tives and fresh new ideas. 

Here are some other key strategies to keep in mind:

  • Leverage local rela­tion­ships with university partners and innovation labs. Recently, the Washington State Trans­porta­tion Commission (WSTC) partnered with students from the University of Washington to develop a new smartphone app that allowed state-wide RUC pilot partic­i­pants to log and auto­mat­i­cally report their miles traveled. This partic­i­pa­tory design approach lends itself well to the RUC concept, since development teams can use feedback from users to continually refine the approach throughout the pilot. 

  • Consider partnering with industry repre­sen­ta­tives to solicit feedback and share lessons learned. These can include automobile manu­fac­tur­ers, envi­ron­men­tal and community orga­ni­za­tions, user-fee technology companies, and key state legislative leaders. 
Ging Ging Fernandez Ging Ging Fernandez
Giving drivers the chance to see their own data and determine what personal impact a RUC system would have on them is one of the most effective ways to improve understanding of the issue.
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Establishing a RUC Model in Washington
Find out how CDM Smith's work with the Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC) has "served as a model for how other states and even the federal government should approach RUC projects."

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