I’ve often written favorably about vehicle mileage taxes (VMTs), which are taxes assessed per mile of travel on public streets, sometimes also incorporating factors such as vehicle weight and time of day. VMTs are usually put forth as a possible replacement or complement to current gasoline taxes, a suggestion with which I largely concur.
In an earlier post, I looked enviously northward to where Oregon was implementing a pilot program testing road usage charges, their term for VMT, before rolling it out to the entire population. (In the same post, I also wrote about the potential use of VMT technology to manage multiple aspects of vehicle use, from congestion charges to overnight parking, while also acknowledging the privacy concerns of the technology. The balance between management and privacy will be hard to find.)
My wish for VMTs to move south is slowly coming true as California is now implementing a pilot program much like the one in Oregon, although with term now modified to road charge.
In an opinion piece in San Francisco Chronicle from a year ago, Jim Madaffer, a member of the California Transportation Commission and the chair of the California Road Charge Technical Advisory Committee, explains the reasons why the current gas tax is failing, including the many years since the tax rate been raised and the improving fuel efficiencies that chip away at the gallons on which the tax can be charged.
He then introduces the road charge as a reasonable replacement for the gas tax. He draws a parallel between electricity, water, and roads, noting that the public is accustomed to paying per unit of usage for the first two and would likely accept the logic of paying on the same basis for public streets
In general, I agree with Madaffer on the superiority of a road charge to a gas tax to generate funds for road construction and maintenance. But road maintenance and construction aren’t the total impact of car usage. The use of gasoline and diesel fuel has impacts outside of road wear and tear, particularly environmental and geopolitical impacts.
I still believe that a VMT is the appropriate mechanism to maintain roads. But I also believe that the gas tax should be retained and likely even increased to account for the other impacts. (And there may be an opportunity to decrease other taxes such as property, income, and corporate as the gas tax revenues are applied to government activities currently covered by general fund dollars.)
Admittedly, a carbon tax would effectively serve the same function as a gas tax, allowing the gas tax to be eliminated, but if a continued gas tax is an incremental step toward a carbon tax, at least progress is being made.
Setting aside my concern about whether the best role of a road charge is to supplant the gas tax or to allow the gas tax to be better targeted, I remain pleased with the concept behind the California Road Charge Pilot Program.
The organizers have assembled a website filled with resources on the theory and history of VMTs and road charges, more resources than I can reasonably assimilate or summarize here, although I encourage readers to spend some time on the site.
However, the key point is that the organizers are looking for 5,000 California drivers to be part of the test program. No money would change hands, with the drivers continuing to pay gas taxes at the pump, but simulated reporting and payments would be made, allowing the organizers to test different approaches and to identify points of concern.
I signed up within minutes of getting onto the website and am hopeful of being selected. But in the event that I’m not, I hope that readers will also sign up and will be willing to share their experiences as the program proceeds.
If you put your name into the hat, please let me know. Our participation might even give us the chance to argue that the road charge should complement, not replace, the gas tax. But regardless, we’d be doing our part to improve road maintenance, leaving our roads in better condition for the next generation.
Many years ago, I had an unusual opportunity to debate the value of neighborhood retail with the mayor of the town where I lived. The discussion ended unresolved when other circumstances derailed the proposed retail development. Nonetheless, until recently I expected that most would agree that history was proving me right. But then I came across a North Bay example where the same discussion is still underway. I’ll give more details in my next post.
As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (firstname.lastname@example.org)