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What could cost California drivers more: charges by the mile or gas taxes?

KPCC's transportation reporter, Meghan McCarty, shows the mile-tracking device she's installing in her car as part of a Caltrans pilot program testing per-mile charges versus taxes at the pump.
KPCC's transportation reporter, Meghan McCarty, shows the mile-tracking device she's installing in her car as part of a Caltrans pilot program testing per-mile charges versus taxes at the pump.
Sandra Oshiro/KPCC

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California is kicking off a test program to see if charging drivers by the mile instead of by the gallon would help pay for much-needed road repairs, and we're on board.

As drivers buy less gas to fuel more efficient automobiles, taxes from the pump to help pay for road repairs haven't kept pace with rising construction costs. The state now faces a $59 billion backlog for road repair and maintenance.

So Caltrans, the state transportation department, is testing how much could be generated if we were to be charged by the mile. 

The pilot is similar to a program launched by Oregon in July 2015, the country's first road user fee program. More than 30 other states are looking into similar programs.

I volunteered to participate in the test program on the California Road Charge website

To participate, you’ve got to track your miles over nine months, and Caltrans offers six different methods to do that. They range from the very low-tech – basically just getting your odometer checked periodically — to devices that track your location, mileage and communicate with your smartphone.

I picked a device that tracks my mileage only and I just got it in the mail.

Fair warning: this was not an easy device to install for someone like me, who lacks certain mechanical skills. The quick start guide also isn't very detailed. But after some troubleshooting, I did locate my car's "OBD port" under the dashboard and plugged in the device.

Voila! The green light lit up, and I was connected.

To see updates on my mileage, I can use a companion smartphone app or the road charge website. The agency is basing its calculations on a charge of  1.8 cents per mile. 

During the test program, you don’t actually have to pay anything for your per-mile charges, although there is a mock credit card sign up. You can simply leave it blank.

If you’re curious how much you might pay under this per-mile system, Caltrans is still taking volunteers on its website

I’ll check back again in a few weeks and tell you what I’m finding out.

Meantime, what do you think is the best way to pay for California's roads? Tell us in the comments below, on Facebook or by tweeting @KPCC.