Back-Seat Driver

California launches test of per-mile road use fee for drivers

California is testing a pay-per-mile system for state drivers.
California is testing a pay-per-mile system for state drivers. RBenton@sacbee.com

For decades, consultant Steve Schnaidt of Sacramento was one of the state Capitol’s go-to experts on transportation financing.

Through those years, there was one constant, he says: “When I came in and when I went out, it was the same problem – we were short of money.”

That’s why the Land Park retiree signed up as a volunteer for the California Road Charge pilot program, a test launched this month by the state of a potential new way to fund road repair and other transportation projects.

For the next nine months, Schnaidt and up to 5,000 other volunteers will report their driving miles to the state – or have their mileage monitored by the state – and will be “charged” a fee per mile they drive.

California funds much of its road repairs through a tax at the gas pump. That source has failed for years to provide enough money. The tax hasn’t been raised since 1994 and has fallen way behind inflation while road-repair costs increase. At the same time, cars have become more fuel efficient, so drivers don’t go to the gas pump as often. Gas pump revenues will dwindle even more if more drivers turn to hybrid gas-electric or all-electric vehicles.

State transportation officials say the state is many billions of dollars short of revenues it needs to catch up on repairs. So, the question is, is there some politically palatable way to replace the pump tax?

The road charge pilot program, mandated by the Legislature, represents California’s effort to see if a per-mile fee program makes sense. Schnaidt is among those who like the concept of drivers paying based on how much they use the roads. “I’m one of those guys who thinks you ought to pay the freight.”

Volunteers in the test program aren’t actually paying the road-use fees. They’ll get simulated monthly statements telling them how much they would pay if there were a pay-by-mile fee system.

The state is trying out a handful of ways to collect mileage data. Some volunteers are “purchasing” a permit for unlimited road use. Some buy a block of miles, based on their guess of how much they will drive each month. Some volunteers are using a plug-in device that records their travels.

Schnaidt has chosen the option of reporting his mileage himself – then emailing the state a cellphone photo of his odometer reading – because he doesn’t like the idea of the government or anyone monitoring his actions. “The big brother thing,” he says. “I don’t like anything that records what I’ve been doing.”

The state has set the “price” at 1.8 cents per mile, which equates to the average annual tax revenue the state has gotten over the last five years from the excise tax. Presumably, if the Legislature ultimately imposes a real per-mile fee, politicians would argue for something more than 1.8 cents.

Even if the road fee proves feasible on the highways, it could hit a road block at the Capitol. Any attempt to raise fees or taxes will be subject to intense debate. The road charge pilot program should, however, provide some answers for the Legislature and governor if they consider making a monumental decision.

Schnaidt knows that, and that is part of why he volunteered. “If you are going to revise the system, you have to do the work, and answer the questions before you go to the politicians,” he said.

State officials say they are still accepting volunteers. For more information, go online to: www.californiaroadchargepilot.com.

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