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February 7th, 2015
By Jim Madaffer

The gasoline tax is archaic and no longer works. Replacing the gas tax with something more equitable — perhaps a tax based on vehicle weight and miles driven — needs to be considered.

California has a serious problem. Our existing method of funding maintenance, repair and construction of our roadways cannot meet current or future demand. It is clear to any driver that our roadways are deteriorating. This decline, coupled with our diminishing funding for roadway maintenance and preservation, demands we take action now.

California has relied on federal and state revenue from taxes on gasoline sales to pay for the repair and maintenance of our transportation network. Even supplementing those transportation funds through special initiatives, such as California’s Proposition 1B in 2006, and the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, haven’t kept pace with need. Gasoline taxes have not risen for more than a decade and have not kept pace with inflation. The result? An overwhelming need and insufficient revenue to meet that demand for repair.

Each year, more Californians also are replacing their gas guzzlers with cars that have higher fuel efficiency, including hybrids and electric vehicles. Gas consumption has been decreasing while the number of miles we are driving is on the rise, resulting in increased wear and tear, as well as traffic congestion, on our roadways. Because revenues to repair and preserve our roadways are generated by a tax on the sale of gasoline, revenues are decreasing, but our repair needs are increasing. This situation will only get worse as more fuel-efficient vehicles come on the road. And they will. Federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards specify that passenger cars and light trucks must achieve fuel efficiencies of 34.1 mpg by 2016 and 54.5 mpg by 2025. We need to find a new way to fund our state transportation system.

California isn’t the only state struggling with shortfalls in highway funding and seeking other ways to generate road repair funds. Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Minnesota are finding real promise with charging for road use rather than taxing gallons of gas purchased. These studies have demonstrated that this method tends to deliver more reliable, long-term funding that is both flexible and equitable. Transitioning from the gas tax to a road charge will take time to study and implement, and there needs to be an interim solution to our immediate problem. Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins’ stop-gap proposal of a $1-a-week assessment to provide the necessary funding for the repair and maintenance of our roadways is an option. Other states simply have raised the gas tax or increased vehicle registration fees as a short-term funding solution.

The idea that the user pays is already commonly accepted, e.g., consumers pay for electricity and water based on how much they use. California’s roads are a public asset belonging to all of us, thus we should all participate in funding their maintenance, repair and expansion in an amount that reflects our use.

Senate Bill 1077, signed into law last year, requires California to study the feasibility of a road-use charge as an alternative to the gas tax. This law requires a yearlong statewide pilot with volunteers from all walks of life participating. The pilot is being developed by a committee that includes experts in telecommunications, data security and privacy, as well as highway users, business and consumer advocates, elected officials and academic researchers.

Over the next year, the Technical Advisory Committee will study the concept of a road charge, gather public input and develop recommendations for the pilot program, which would begin in January 2017. Results should provide valuable information to determine if a road charge would be suitable for California. We will carefully examine options that will provide individual choice for reporting use — ranging from non-technology options such as pen and paper to distance recording devices. Our committee will consider all opinions to ensure we get the best ideas from around the state.

While our efforts will build on work done in other states and countries, we’ll customize any program to meet California’s unique environment and needs.

We know funding our road network with the gas tax is a sure loser. We need a better solution to maintain our roads and highways. Paying for the miles we drive may be that solution.

Jim Madaffer is the chair of the California Road Charge Technical Advisory Committee and a member of the California Transportation Commission.

Read the post at its home and comment at the San Francisco Chronicle.