Back-Seat Driver

Volunteers wanted: California will study pay-by-mile road fee

The Legislature has instructed Caltrans and other transportation officials to set up a nine-month test to see what it would be like if drivers paid for state road repairs based on how many miles they drive in their cars or trucks rather than how many gallons they buy at the pump.
The Legislature has instructed Caltrans and other transportation officials to set up a nine-month test to see what it would be like if drivers paid for state road repairs based on how many miles they drive in their cars or trucks rather than how many gallons they buy at the pump. rbenton@sacbee.com

The state of California is looking for 5,000 volunteers this summer for an experiment with potentially major pocketbook ramifications.

It’s called the “California Road Charge pilot program,” a concept that will scare some people, and likely cause others to say it’s about time.

The Legislature has instructed Caltrans and other transportation officials to set up a nine-month test to see what it would be like if drivers paid for state road repairs based on how many miles they drive in their cars or trucks rather than how many gallons they buy at the pump.

For nearly a century, the state of California has financed most of its road repairs through a tax that drivers pay at the gas pump. The “excise tax,” 18 cents per gallon, no longer works well. For one, the tax hasn’t been raised since 1994, despite inflation.

The other problem is that as cars become more fuel efficient, drivers buy less gas and the state collects less money at the pumps for ever more costly road work. That funding imbalance will get worse as more drivers turn to hybrid gas-electric or all-electric vehicles.

California is one of a handful of states around the country experimenting with user-based systems. Advocates argue that the fee, essentially a “road user” fee, is a fairer way to go. Carrie Pourvahidi, the Caltrans road charge program manager, said the state wants a broad group, including rural and urban residents, to participate in the test.

Volunteers won’t actually pay road-use fees. They’ll continue to pay the pump tax like everyone else. But they’ll get simulated monthly statements telling them how much they would pay if there were a pay-by-mile fee system.

Sharon Scherzinger of El Dorado Hills has volunteered. She’s the executive director of the El Dorado County Transportation Commission, and said El Dorado County roads are in bad shape and the county doesn’t have enough money to get them all fixed.

“Long-term, we have to find a better solution,” she said.

Pilot participants can choose to have the state monitor their in-vehicle computer, tracking where the driver goes. That way, Pourvahidi said, the state doesn’t charge the driver the fee when he or she is driving on private roads or out of state.

Plenty of people, however, will not want the state to monitor where they are driving. They’ll see that as an invasion of privacy. For that reason, the state plans to test a few other ways of collecting the data.

Another option is to use the in-vehicle system, but not allow it to track where the driver is going. Or, drivers can have their odometer reading verified periodically, possibly simply by taking a picture with their cell phone and transmitting that to the state. The state also will experiment with allowing drivers to buy an all-you-can-drive pass for a week or month.

State officials want to launch the nine-month program in July. They have 4,300 potential volunteers so far, 600 in the Sacramento region (If you’re one of them, send us an email.). The state hopes to get a lot more to sign up so they can choose a variety of people from around the state. They’ll issue a report to the Legislature in June 2017 about how it went, including comments from volunteers.

For more information on the program, go to www.californiaroadchargepilot.com.

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