Business & Economy

Taxing road use instead of gas in a new pilot program

Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

As it works now, California drivers pay a tax whenever they fill up on gas. Those funds are used to pay for infrastructure maintenance, as well as new road projects. But as new vehicles use less fuel, the state has found itself with dwindling tax income for road repairs.  

Caltrans just launched a pilot program that would tax drivers based on the amount of mile they travel instead, in order to generate more funds for the state’s roadways.

Thousands of volunteers have already signed up for the nine-month program. It will will test out about six different methods to record and report tax mileage — including everything from a smartphone app and manual odometer checks, Vanessa Wiseman, spokesperson for Caltrans, told KPCC.

The new road charge would replace the existing gas tax, which hasn’t been raised in 20 years and is is no longer a sustainable model, Wiseman said. Electric vehicles and newer cars with increased fuel economies are much more common, and therefore don’t use as much gas, she added.

“We’re seeing more and more vehicle miles traveled, but less and less money coming in to account for those extra miles,” she said.

As part of the pilot program, drivers aren’t actually paying money; they're simply testing out how the system might work. The hypothetical price is 1.8 cents per mile, she said.

Caltrans oversees about 50,000 lane miles and almost 13,000 bridges in the state highway system which receive about $2.3 billion annually for maintenance.  That's about $5.7 billion less than what's required to repair them, according to Wiseman.

It’s not yet clear whether this program would be significantly more effective in practice than the gas tax model currently in place. The hope is that once the cars who don’t use as much gas are are paying by mile rather than by gallon, the state would have more to use toward road maintenance.

“It would definitely make a difference in terms of bringing in revenue that’s not being accounted for through the gas tax from electric vehicles and hybrid vehicles,” Wiseman said. “It’s been wonderful that they have been increasing the fuel economy of vehicles, which is great for some of our greenhouse gas emission goals that we have here in California, and it’s better for the environment — but they’re not using as much gas, which is the only way we’re really paying for maintaining the roads.”

After the nine months are up, the results and findings will be reviewed by the state Legislature, which will determine whether to enact a full-scale permanent road charge program. They’ll also be responsible for setting the price per mile, she said.