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New pilot program to explore options to replace California gas tax

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The money available to fix up California’s highways is dwindling, so some transportation leaders want to change the way to pay to maintain them.

The California Road Charge Pilot started on July 1. It’s testing to see if it’s feasible to charge California drivers by the distance they drive rather than by the amount of gas they put into their car. Right now, 5,000 California drivers are volunteering in the program.

According to the California Road Charge Brochure, the gas tax is currently fixed at 18 cents per gallon. More fuel-efficient cars hybrids are currently contributing only a fraction of the costs needed to maintain California highways.

Caltrans officials say. with this tested pilot, each mile driven would cost an estimated 1.8 cents per mile.

Mitchell Weiss, deputy director of the California Transportation Commission, says this pilot program is another way to find a long-term source for revenue that isn’t currently generated by the gas tax.

“We’re seeing more autonomous vehicles being tested, we’re seeing more and more affordable electric cars,” Weiss said. “The long-term trend is that we’re going to have to look at another solution.

The pilot provides multiple ways to participate:

  1. Time permits: Volunteers pay for unlimited road use for a certain amount of time
  2. Mileage permit: Volunteers pre-pay to drive a certain number of miles
  3. Odometer charge: Volunteers pay for fee per mile based on odometer readings
  4. Automated mileage reporting without general location data: Volunteers have in-vehicle equipment that sends mileage use to an account manager automatically
  5. Automated mileage without general location data: Volunteers have in-vehicle equipment that reports miles to an account manager equipped with GPS so the volunteer doesn’t face charges for traveling out of state

The pilot also addresses privacy concerns with the volunteer drivers, which is why Weiss says there are multiple options for drivers to track their miles.

Senate Bill 1077: “Travel locations or patterns shall not be reported, and legal and technical safeguards shall protect personal information.”

“The legislation limits the ability to release data,” Weiss said.

California isn’t the first state to test out a similar road charge pilot program. Nevada, Washington, Minnesota, and Oregon are the states that fall under that category.

Oregon has a similar program that has tested two pilots and is currently charging volunteer drivers by the miles they drive. It’s called OReGO. According to Michelle Godfrey with the Oregon Department of Transportation, OReGO started at the drawing board 15 years ago. Now, Godfrey says she sees the program as a success.

Back in California, Caltrans officials say the state needs another $5.7 billion a year just to maintain the state’s highway funding. Caltrans spokesman Colin Jones says, as the revenue goes down, the miles traveled go up, and there’s a reason for that.

“California roadways and highways are definitely under a lot of stress,” Jones said. “Since the economy has improved and tourism’s gone up, there’s a lot of traffic out there, a lot of wear and tear on our highways.”

Jennifer Armstrong of Los Osos isn’t completely on board with the idea of being charged by the distance she drives.

“I just think it will cost too much,” Armstrong said. “Our family drives a lot, it just won’t work for us. I think it’s a bad idea.”

However, not everyone sees it that way. Reid Haster of Shell Beach says it will be a good thing for California highways.

“I think it’s only fair that everyone contributes based on their use of the roads rather than the use of the gas tax because we’re running out of road tax money.”

According to Weiss, the State Transportation Agency will study the results of the pilot once it concludes in April 2017. From there, the Transportation Commission will make its recommendation to the legislature by December 2017.

The pilot program isn’t the only option to increase revenue for California roads. According to Caltrans, other options include raising the gas tax, increasing the fees for vehicle registration and transportation bonds.

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