State investigates road tax on miles traveled


Issue Date: April 20, 2016
By Christine Souza
Trucking company owner Joe Antonini of Antonini Enterprises, above at the company’s Lathrop location, said he believes a road tax based on miles driven would cause new administrative burdens for trucking companies.
Photo/Steve Adler
One-third of major California roads and highways have pavement surfaces in poor condition as a result of a lack of adequate state and local funding, according to a 2014 report by TRIP, a national transportation group.
Photo/Steve Adler

Rural residents in California can see—and feel—the deteriorating condition of the state's roadways. A lack of adequate state and local funding has resulted in more than one-third of major California roads and highways having pavement surfaces in poor condition, according to a 2014 report by TRIP, a national transportation group based in Washington, D.C.

Californians pay among the highest gasoline and diesel excise taxes in the nation, but state officials say that source of funding isn't sufficient. They're looking at a new, pay-as-you-go tax system based on vehicle miles traveled—and rural residents are being encouraged to participate in a program to test such a system.

John Gamper, director of taxation and land use for the California Farm Bureau Federation, laid part of the current problem to the diversion of billions of dollars of funds that would have been dedicated to road repair and maintenance to other spending priorities. Gamper said this included weight fees on heavy vehicles and pickup trucks that were diverted to pay the interest on state transportation bonds.

"Truck weight fees were diverted to fund interest payments on the $20 billion borrowed in Proposition 1B for highway construction in 2006," he said. "This freed a like amount of General Fund money for other spending priorities of the governor and Legislature."

Gasoline and diesel fuel taxes generate about $5.7 billion a year for state and local governments. Transportation officials say despite an increase in the number of vehicles on the road, improved fuel efficiency and the growing popularity of hybrids and electric vehicles have reduced the revenue generated by the tax.

Mitchell Weiss, deputy director of the California Transportation Commission, said the state will not be able to improve the quality of its roads "without additional, reliable and sufficient transportation funding." He said the Legislature is considering several funding proposals and that the commission has urged legislators "to work together to develop a compromise that will result in a significant down payment on our transportation infrastructure needs and provide meaningful reforms."

Transportation California Executive Director Will Kempton, a former director of Caltrans, said the state must find a long-term solution to its revenue shortfall for transportation.

"While we may have to depend on the gas tax to fund transportation for the immediate future, in the long term, the gas tax will not fill the bill due to the quickly growing fuel efficiency of the vehicle fleet," Kempton said. "You can't support the increasing needs of our transportation program with a declining revenue source."

In an attempt to find solutions, the Legislature established the California Road Charge Technical Advisory Committee in 2014 to design a pilot project to study "road charging" as a potential replacement for the gas tax. Under a road-charging system, drivers pay for road maintenance and repairs based on the number of miles they drive, rather than how much fuel they consume.

The California Road Charge Pilot Program, set to launch in June, is intended to offer drivers a choice in mileage-recording methods; cost drivers nothing to participate; determine the impacts of road charging on people of various income levels; determine the impacts of road charging on urban and rural drivers; and protect drivers' privacy and personal information through third-party, validated protocols.

Bruce Blodgett, San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation executive director, said it's important for volunteers from rural areas to participate in the pilot program, saying many people involved in the project don't fully understand "what it takes to travel in rural areas."

"We need the Road Charge Technical Advisory Committee to know what kind of mileage we are covering on both private and public roadways," said Blodgett, who represented agriculture as a member of a Road Charge Work Group. "If we don't participate, we will not like the results. Those with varying interests are getting their people to participate. We'd better be prepared to do the same."

The California Trucking Association said it is taking part in the pilot project, to determine if a road-charge funding mechanism could be a viable alternative to the existing fuel tax system.

"This is a monumental shift in how the state pays for its roads," said Eric Sauer, CTA vice president for policy and government relations, who serves on the technical advisory committee. "The current process of paying at the pump works; however, CTA understands there is a significant shortfall to transportation funding and we are willing to explore alternative options."

Companies that operate multiple vehicles worry about the administrative burden a road-charge system would entail, Sauer said, adding that CTA also wants to ensure that privacy is protected and that there is a plan for enforcement.

Trucking company owner Joe Antonini of Stockton-based Antonini Enterprises said he believes a road tax based on miles driven would affect trucking companies to a greater extent than the general public.

"Our trucks run hundreds of thousands of miles per year per truck, and ultimately several million miles per year. I would imagine the tax would generate quite a bit more revenue per truck than it does today where we pay by the gallon," Antonini said. "If we have to report it with miles, it would be an administrative burden that we don't have currently. While we are definitely interested in fixing California's roads, I think it needs to be an equitable share of the expense."

As part of the pilot program, Weiss said, drivers will have a choice of mileage-reporting methods including low-tech methods—such as odometer reading and time and mileage permits—and high-tech methods involving a smartphone, in-vehicle GPS or other telematics systems, or a usage-based device that plugs into the vehicle. High-tech methods, Weiss said, might have the capability of recognizing mileage driven on private roads that would not be subject to a tax.

Following the nine-month pilot program, the California State Transportation Agency will report on the results and the Transportation Commission will make recommendations to the Legislature.

No change to the tax system could occur unless directed by the Legislature and approved by the governor.

Rural residents interested in participating in the Road Charge Pilot Program can find out more online, at www.californiaroadchargepilot.com, or by attending an upcoming meeting where representatives of the Transportation Commission will discuss the projects. Meetings are scheduled for May 4, in San Andreas at the Calaveras Council of Governments, 444 East Saint Charles St., and May 11, in Monterey at the Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments, 24580 Silver Cloud Court.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.