With people driving more fuel-efficient cars and fewer miles, some states are pondering the question of how to pay for road upkeep funded largely with gas taxes. (Bruce Chambrs / File Photo)
By Nicole Knight Shine / Staff Writer
Updated Aug. 8, 2015 – 8:44 p.m.
The next time your Prius bounces through a pothole, consider the conundrum California faces.
Today’s cars sip rather than guzzle gas. Electric cars abound. And even though motorists are driving more and wearing down roads, revenue to pay for road upkeep – collected via a state tax on gas sales – is falling. Caltrans has put the road repair backlog at $5.7 billion.
Now California is one of several states to consider replacing the state gas tax with a charge for every mile driven.
Last fall, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law to launch a limited study with a 2017 deadline.
“We’re going to have to find another way to finance the upkeep of the roads,” Brown said during a January budget briefing. “Whether people use electricity or natural gas or whatever they use, they’re still wearing down the roads.”
Mileage-based fees, used to some extent in Europe and Asia, hold promise in terms of how much money they can raise. A 2009 national forecast by the RAND Corp. suggests that a per-mile charge of 1.1 cents might generate 20 percent more revenue than gas taxes by 2030.
But any alternative must bridge the interests of commuters and industry and address concerns about monitoring, compliance, cost, fairness and even interstate travel.
The program’s potential winners include owners of some gas-guzzling vehicles. The Department of Transportation in Oregon, which is studying pay-per-mile, estimated that the owner of a Ford F150 pickup might pay a few bucks less. The losers? Owners of electric or hybrid vehicles, who pay little or nothing now.
Some of the challenges include figuring out how to track and charge for mileage without intruding on motorists’ privacy. Another hurdle: how to convince lawmakers.
“How do you pay for it, when do you pay for it, where do you pay for it – those are things that we still need to figure out,” said Jim Madaffer, a former San Diego city councilman who is chairman of the California Road Charge Technical Advisory Committee, the 15-person panel from industry and other groups spearheading the pilot project.
“It’s similar to your phone bill or your utility bill, you pay for what you use.”
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