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California Road Charge Pilot Program: How You Can Help Discover if Road Charging Is a Viable Alternative to the Gas Tax

How can we continue to fund infrastructure maintenance and improvements?

This question is foremost in the minds of many transportation construction professionals. Even with the recent passing of the $305 billion highway bill, many of us working at the city and state-level are still searching for more permanent or longer-term funding solutions, especially when it comes to maintaining our roadways.

Considering the Road Charge in California

I attended the Self-Help Counties Coalition Focus on the Future conference late last year and watched a presentation by Executive Director of the California Transportation Commission, Will Kempton. Director Kempton presented on the California Road Charge Pilot Program, a multi-year study that is exploring the road charge as an alternative funding mechanism to the gas tax. Road charging is used to charge drivers fees based on miles traveled or on certain times drivers use the roads, rather than gasoline consumed. The gas tax has struggled in recent years to provide a reliable and permanent solution to the transportation funding gap due to inflation and the rise of fuel-efficient cars. According to research, by 2030 as much as half of the revenue that could have been collected from the gas tax will be lost to fuel efficiency.

In 2014, the California state legislature passed Senate Bill 1077 to commence the multi-year road charge pilot program. A technical advisory committee (TAC) of 15 members from various representative groups is currently studying road charging and some of the more sensitive considerations (e.g. privacy, data security and technology implications). The pilot is planned to launch in January of 2017. Right now, Director Will Kempton said the TAC is seeking 5,000 volunteers in California to participate in the pilot program. Volunteers will be testing one of five mileage reporting methods California is testing. A final report on the results of the pilot is scheduled for June 30, 2018 with final legislative recommendations in 2018.

Road Charge Supporters and Opponents

The Road Charge is being tested and considered by several other states, including fellow western states Washington, Nevada and Oregon. After 12 years of study, Oregon passed legislation to move to a road charge model rather than gas tax. 

In addition to providing a more reliable funding stream, the road charge has supporters convinced that this mechanism will hold drivers accountable from a sustainability standpoint. When paying for miles traveled, people will think twice before using their car and may opt to walk or use transit instead. Many hope that the road charge will improve air quality and congestion of the roads.

Critics of the road charge oppose the program for a variety of reasons. Some believe the focus should be on how to spend the current tax dollars more efficiently on maintenance rather than turning to a new tax as the solution. For example, opponents of the Road Charge in Minnesota argued to simply spend less tax dollars on failed transit initiatives and more on maintenance and repair. Electric vehicle owners argue it’s too early to begin punishing those who opted for fuel-efficient cars and that lawmakers should focus on raising the gas tax (which may encourage more people to purchase fuel efficient cars, but that only further contributes to the unsustainability of the gas tax as a funding mechanism). Other drivers are against road charging for financial reasons (those who travel many miles for work) and privacy concerns (the use of geo-location devices to track mileage have those wary about how much of their data the government would have access to).

Why Volunteer?

As a transportation professional, I felt compelled to volunteer for this historic pilot program. I have not made up my mind on whether I fully support road charging; however, I feel obligated to do my part to help the State find out if this is a viable alternative for infrastructure funding. Even the strongest opponent of this method should consider participating in the pilot, so they have a chance to validate the program on their own and make sure their voice is heard. I encourage you to join me and to spread the word to others about this program. It is time to take initiative to start exploring as many funding alternatives as we can to solve our current infrastructure crisis.

What are your thoughts on the California Road Charge Pilot Program and other infrastructure funding initiatives? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

Author

Carole Sanders, PE, QSD

Dubbed “The Queen of the SR-210” by the San Bernardino Sun, Carole specializes in the freeways and bridges that keep the Southland connected. With nearly three decades of experience, she’s a veteran of both the public and private sectors. She’s won numerous awards throughout her career, including Resident Engineer of the Year from Caltrans. She was also appointed to the Engineering Advisory Board at the University of California at Riverside, Bourn School of Engineering, to create and develop their School of Civil Engineering.

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