BY DUG BEGLEY
STAFF WRITER
dbegley@pe.com

Published: 05 April 2012 10:43 PM

Faced with a half-trillion dollars in Southern California transportation needs through 2035, officials Thursday called for higher gas taxes or a shift to a fee drivers would pay based on how far they drive.

“Without investment, our plans are just empty promises on paper,” said Simi Valley Councilman Glen Becerra, incoming president of the Southern California Association of Governments.

The agency’s regional transportation plan, approved Wednesday, outlines road, rail, transit, cycling and pedestrian spending in Riverside, San Bernardino, Orange, Los Angeles, Ventura and Imperial counties until 2035. Updated every four years, the plan is required if the region is to qualify for federal transportation money. It will be submitted to Washington officials later this summer with a detailed description of how local officials will pay for the projects.

Unlike previous plans, the new version assumes federal and state officials will raise taxes. It lays out specifics of when and how drivers and freight will be charged for their share of the cost of public roads, passenger rail and transit systems. Existing gas taxes will either increase or be replaced with a fee system based on the number of miles someone drives.

As gas mileage in modern cars and trucks has improved, the 18.4 cents in federal excise taxes on each gallon of fuel has remained flat since 1994. Less fuel consumption means less revenue, while construction costs are higher than they were 20 years ago. The trend toward more hybrid and electric vehicles will erode gas tax revenues further.

As a result, the Highway Trust Fund — federal money banked for road repairs and expansions — is being propped up by cash infusions from the nation’s general fund. Local money, raised normally through sales taxes, is paying a greater share of project costs as state and federal money decreases.

“There isn’t enough money in the pipeline for projects,” said former Gov. Gray Davis, who participated in Thursday’s discussions.

To address the money problem, the regional plan presumes a 15-cent hike in gas taxes between 2017 and 2024. In 2025, according to the plan, the federal government either will raise the gas tax again or shift to a fee based on how far someone travels. The revenue would be based on a fee of about 5 cents per mile, based on 2011 dollars.

If such a fee were imposed, someone who drives 15,000 miles a year would pay $750, compared with $190 in excise taxes over the same distance for a car that gets 30 mpg. With the fee, excise taxes on gasoline would be reduced or eliminated.

The tax increase or travel fee would raise about one-fifth of the money needed to widen roads, increase transit service and add new bicycle lanes to many local streets.

Officials acknowledge the additional taxes or the fee would be difficult to sell to voters and to lawmakers. Previous suggestions that gas taxes should be replaced with a vehicle-miles-traveled fee have proven unpopular.

Corona Councilwoman Karen Spiegel said lawmakers are unwilling to consider tax increases at this time. She predicted any state gas tax changes would end up in front of voters.

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