Caltrans Seeking 5,000 Drivers to Try VMT Fee Instead of Gas Tax

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As the value captured from the state’s gas tax continues to fall, and the conditions of the California’s roads and bridges continues to worsen, state leaders unveiled a plan last week to pilot a program that could lead to replacing the gas tax with a road user fee based on vehicle miles traveled. A summary of the report can be found here.

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“The gas tax is based on people getting gasoline at a filling station. People are moving to hybrid and electric vehicles. People are not using gasoline at the same pace. It used to be that when you got gas at a gas station, you would be paying, through the gas tax, for road maintenance,” explains Santa Monica City Councilmember Pam O’Connor, who sat on a Technical Advisory Committee for the pilot program.

“That funding source has declined. Another source needed to be identified to assure funding to fix, maintain, and build new roads,” she said.

Caltrans maintains 50,000 lane-miles of highway and nearly 13,000 state-owned bridges. However, the state’s current fuel excise tax is sufficient to fund only $2.3 billion of work, leaving$5.7 billion in unfunded repairs each year.

“The gas tax is outdated and no longer capable of meeting all of our future transportation revenue needs,” said Will Kempton, executive director of the California Transportation Commission, the appointed body that released a report detailing the pilot program.

“The pilot is an excellent opportunity to study road charging and should provide the Legislature the data it needs to better determine whether and how this idea might work in California,” he said.

Caltrans is looking for all sorts of motorized vehicle owners to take part in the project. To accurately gauge what the public’s reaction to changing from a gas tax to a vehicle-miles-traveled fee is a big deal and they want to present lawmakers with a wide range of volunteers’ opinions. Are you a sales person that drives hundreds of miles a week? A transit commuter who uses the car for weekend getaways? Something in between? You qualify to participate in the pilot program.

Live a completely car-free lifestyle? Congratulations! But…you don’t qualify.

So how will miles be tracked? Well, that’s another thing they are studying. A fact sheet prepared for interested participants summarized the options as “no-tech, low-tech, or go-tech.” Basically, participants in this project would have the option of using smart phone apps, GPS devices attached to their cars or, for the privacy-minded, a notepad and paper.

“The committee looked at options including a GPS-based modeled,” explains O’Connor. “If some people have more concerns about privacy, you could do it by an odometer reading.”

Also still up for study is how the agency will charge people for using the roads. Will California residents be charged for all the driving they do? Driving just on highways? Driving outside the state? Will there be a one-time fee offered for people to pay up-front? All of that is still to be determined.

But for O’Connor, these questions can’t be answered quickly enough.

“We all want good roads. Well, if we want good roads, we have to figure out how to fund their maintenance. We have a problem in California. We have some deferred road maintenance and the longer we defer the more expensive it gets,” she said.

1 thought on Caltrans Seeking 5,000 Drivers to Try VMT Fee Instead of Gas Tax

  1. To those who are in favor of a VMT tax system, I urge you to carefully consider the following…

    The primary justification cited by advocates of a VMT tax is that hybrid and electric vehicle owners aren’t paying their fair share for road improvements. Easy, easy fix: Impose a surcharge on these vehicles when the owners renew their plates each year; have one surcharge level for hybrid vehicles, and a higher surcharge for fully electric vehicles. If you like, throw in another surcharge for vehicles over a certain weight, as they cause more wear to the pavement. Problem solved.

    Yes, we do need more money going toward highway and infrastructure funding. I like having decent roads and bridges to drive on and I don’t mind paying more to do so. But all we need to do is raise the existing gas tax; it’s already in place, and you can start collecting that extra revenue right from day one. No one has offered a sound reason why a VMT system is superior to raising the existing gas tax. And if we were to switch to a VMT system, understand that that would involve creating a government bureaucracy from scratch. Take a moment to consider the millions of dollars that will be diverted away from highway funding just to create and sustain this new bureaucracy.

    In the VMT pilot programs across the country, there are multiple schemes floating around for collecting our mileage data, and none them are particularly appealing…

    Smartphone apps: This is completely unworkable, and by far the worst idea of the lot. How will this app know which vehicle I’m in? How will it know if I’m the driver or a passenger? How will it know if I’m in a rental car, or an Uber car, or a train, or a taxi, or a bus, or on a bike, or walking? Just because my phone is in motion doesn’t mean I should be charged for mileage. If you successfully address that issue, consider that I don’t use my phone’s location services. Some people leave them on all the time (personally, I think that’s silly), but I’m quite capable of getting around without the help of GPS, and I don’t need everyone on social media knowing my every move. Mainly, I keep the location services off because they are a colossal drain on the phone’s battery. Also, consider how easy it would be to cheat this system. I could leave my phone at home or put it on airplane mode while I run errands around town. Boom…tax-free mileage. Finally, consider the number of drivers who don’t own smartphones. There are plenty of them out there. How will you collect their mileage data?

    In-vehicle GPS device: Better idea than a smartphone app, but still has plenty of drawbacks. I travel thousands of miles annually in very rural areas where there is no cell signal. What happens when there are reception gaps in the tracking history of a vehicle? If you think satellite tracking is the answer, it’s not. Satellite GPS signals are far weaker than cell signals and are easily blocked by trees and buildings. Also, consider classic car owners. There are thousands of vintage machines on the road. How will you track them? My car, made before 1980, has no computer, no electronics, no data port. And I’m not about to let anyone hardwire a GPS unit to this classic vehicle that I’ve worked so hard to restore. As for those vehicles that will have VMT tracking devices installed, who pays for those devices? Who pays for their installation? Who pays for maintenance or replacement when they malfunction?

    Preset annual distance fees, odometer readings: These are the least objectionable methods being considered, but what I’ve yet to hear from anyone is how VMT will be handled across jurisdictions. Will we have one national VMT system or a patchwork of state systems that will surely have trouble communicating with one another? I drive all over North America…will I have to separate my mileage totals for each state that I pass through? Will I have to send an annual check to every state I’ve visited? What about all of the miles I log in Canada each year? Income tax preparation is already complicated enough…do we really need more record keeping added to mix?

    All of these issues will need to be addressed before you can roll out VMT to the masses. And, for the record, any of the above methods for collecting mileage data are open to fraud and abuse, some more so than others. Thousands of people will find ways to under-report their mileage. But you can’t cheat the existing gas tax; it’s already built in to the cost of the fuel. You pump the gas, you’ve paid the tax.

    Let’s assume for a minute that all of the issues I raised above can be successfully addressed. Fine. Now, answer the big question: Why? Why should we, as a nation, undertake the tremendous effort and expense of creating a VMT tax bureaucracy when we can quickly and simply achieve the same end result by raising the existing gas tax and placing a registration surcharge on hybrid and electric vehicles?

    When you encounter anyone who advocates the VMT tax, be they ordinary citizen or state legislator, ask them if they’ve actually considered all of the costs and logistics of creating a workable VMT tax system.

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