Business & Economy

Pay by the mile or at the pump? A gas tax experiment

A gasoline pump rests in the tank of a car in San Anselmo, California.
A gasoline pump rests in the tank of a car in San Anselmo, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
A gasoline pump rests in the tank of a car in San Anselmo, California.
A customer prepares to pump gasoline into her vehicle at a Chevron gas station in San Rafael, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images


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California faces a $59 billion backlog of deferred maintenance on roads and bridges.

Drivers in the state pay some of the highest gas taxes in the country but they haven't kept pace with rising construction costs. And increasing fuel efficiency means revenues will fall even more in the future.

So state officials are testing out a new way to pay for road repairs: Charging people for the miles they drive instead of the gas they buy.

The experiment, the California Road Charge pilot, kicked off in July. I signed up and just received my first bill (although I checked my progress on my smartphone earlier in August).

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The pilot program is a dry run, so I don't actually have to pay anything. But my bill estimates how much I would owe the state based on the number of miles I've driven.

I owe $1.38 for the 349.8 chargeable miles I've driven. That's subtracting the estimated $4.91 I paid in gas tax over the same period from the total road charge of $6.30, or 1.8 cents per mile.

For me, and for most small, fuel-efficient cars, the road charge would be a little more expensive than the gas tax.

The state estimates people who drive pick-up trucks can expect to pay a little less with this system. The state already charges an added weight-based fee at registration for commercial vehicles and trucks.

Vanessa Wiseman, a public information officer with Caltrans, expects some Californians to balk at the higher bill but, "You get what you pay for. If we want a world class transportation system, we have to be willing to pay for it."

She says the road charge system is fairer and more transparent because it presents a clear relationship between how much you use the road and how much you pay to maintain it.

I'm tracking my miles using one of six options offered — a device that plugs into my car's computer and transmits my miles automatically to the state.

Those with privacy concerns can choose lower tech methods such as having your odometer manually checked or submitting a photo of it via smartphone application.

The downside with those methods is participants would be charged for all miles driven, even those driven out of state or on local roads. Drivers using devices that also track location wouldn't be charged for those miles.

A poll released by the California Public Policy Institute in March showed more than 60 percent said it was very important for the state to spend more to fix roads and infrastructure — but only 35 percent supported raising taxes to pay for it.

In June 2015 Governor Jerry Brown convened a special session of the legislature to tackle the problem of funding road repairs. He laid out his plan to do so in his budget this year, including raising gas taxes, tying them to inflation, increasing vehicle registration fees and cutting costs at Caltrans.

So far, all proposals have met with gridlock in the legislature, which last week closed its two-year session having made no progress on the issue.