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State explores swap for gas tax

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California officials foresee a future in which charging taxes based on gas consumption is dropped, and drivers instead pay taxes based on miles traveled.

A pilot of the “California Road Charge” will test such a future with 5,000 volunteers starting in July. The drivers will allow the state to measure how many miles they’ve traveled to estimate payment for it.

The swap in tax streams is seen as key for a future replete with new technology — hybrid vehicles, electric cars, driverless vehicles — that will chip away at the gas tax. Without changing revenue streams, lawmakers say, funding to fix the state’s roads will be scarce.

“The gas tax is simply not going to cut it in the mid- to long-term,” said Judson True, aide to Assemblyman David Chiu.

According to TRIP, a national transportation research group, poor road conditions cost the average California driver $762 per year in operating and repair costs.

The pilot program is looking at a range of models for a future road charge. The reporting methods that will be tested range from self-reporting to GPS tracking. Those who will verify that data — known as “account managers” — may be provided by both government and private enterprise.

The pilot will also study vehicles from urban and suburban environments, as well as a diversity of vehicle types.

Michelle Beaulieu, a transportation planner at the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, briefed the authority’s board on the program at City Hall Tuesday morning.

When the state’s California Road Charge Technical Advisory Committee solicited public feedback on the potential road charge, “There was a lot of confusion over what a road use charge is in general,” Beaulieu told the SFCTA.

The concept of “fairness” played a lot into people’s expectations of a road charge, she said, though the interpretation of “fairness” was varied.

Beaulieu said one possible idea is paying for unlimited driving over a certain period of time, which
protects the privacy of where drivers travel.

“It preserves privacy concerns citizens have,” Beaulieu said. GPS technology is one possible method for tracking mileage under the pilot.

True said the privacy concern was shared by Assemblyman Chiu.

“I think everyone on the task force was concerned about privacy, and about whether something like this can be implemented,” True said, “That’s why there’s a pilot, so we can test it out.”

Supervisor Jane Kim, who serves on the transportation authority board, also wondered if switching from the gas tax to a mileage-based tax would hurt the environment. She asked if the pilot program would be “penalizing those being more environmental in their driving behavior?”

Charging for gas is an effective penalty, Kim said, helping to shift drivers into hybrid cars less dependent on carbon-producing fuel.

Beaulieu replied the state recommends incentivizing the purchase of fuel-efficient cars “at the time of purchase,” not as an ongoing subsidy.

“I think the thing to keep in mind is the gas tax was not meant as a penalty,” Beaulieu said.

“At the time it was set up, it made sense because every vehicle used gasoline,” she said, noting the pilot program “is meant to be a return to a fair user fee on all vehicles using the roads.”

The pilot program is expected to last nine months, with a report returning to the state legislature by June 30, 2017.

To sign up as a volunteer, visit www.californiaroadchargepilot.com.