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The California legislature passed a bill extending a road usage charge pilot program. But opponents are concerned the legislation is laying the groundwork for a permanent mileage tax. Courtesy photo
The California legislature passed a bill extending a road usage charge pilot program. But opponents are concerned the legislation is laying the groundwork for a permanent mileage tax. Courtesy photo
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California’s road usage charge pilot program stirs controversy

REGION — Vehicle miles traveled and road usage charges are gaining popularity among some elected officials drafting public policies aimed at helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In California, the legislature recently passed Senate Bill 339, authored by State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), extending a road usage charge pilot program until Jan. 1, 2027.

Vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and road usage charges (RUC) are methods of tracking drivers and taxing them for using cars in an effort to push residents into alternative modes of transit, such as buses and trains.

According to a 2017 report on a previous statewide pilot program (Senate Bill 1077), the program is a way to find alternative revenue sources to combat shrinking gasoline taxes as drivers transition to electric, hybrid and fuel-efficient vehicles.

But not every elected official is on board with the legislation, with some opponents viewing it as a step toward instituting a permanent — and more expensive — replacement for the state’s gas tax.

State Sen. Pat Bates (R-Laguna Niguel), whose 36th Senate District covers parts of North County, voted against the extension.

“California has the highest gas tax and gas prices in the country, so the last thing the Legislature should be doing is laying the groundwork for charging drivers with a new mileage tax,” said Bates, who sits on the Senate transportation committee. “Such a tax will hurt Californians with middle and lower incomes, who tend to drive less efficient cars and live farther away from their jobs. California does not have a revenue problem as evidenced by the state’s $75.7 billion budget surplus this year. The state needs better spending priorities, not more taxes.”

SB 339 requires the California Transportation Commission to create an RUC Technical Advisory Committee in consultation with the state’s Secretary of Transportation. The law also requires the committee to study RUC alternatives and gather public comment.

The committee must make its recommendations to the transportation agency regarding the program’s design program and revenue collection by July 1, 2023. The program is voluntary to non-state-owned vehicles, according to the law’s language.

One group will be subject to a fee per mile traveled, while the other will be subject to an individually calculated fee per mile traveled equal to the state per-gallon fuel tax divided by the Environmental Protection Agency’s estimated fuel economy rating based on the manufacturer, model and year of the vehicle.

Those who participate would receive a credit or a refund for fuel taxes or electric vehicle fees, according to the statute. The law, though, does not reveal how the state will collect the necessary information to track mileage.

“I’m authoring a bill (#SB339) to evaluate a road charge based on vehicle miles traveled, to eventually replace (sic) gas tax,” Wiener said on Sept. 4 on Twitter. “We gave final approval to the bill and sent it to the Governor. We need this transition to fund our roads and transit systems.”

According to Bates’ office, the state has had RUC and VMT pilot programs in place since 2014. SB 1077, authored by former state senator and current Congressman Mark DeSaulnier (CA-11), and SB 1328, which was authored by State Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose) and passed in 2018, both established a mileage-based road usage fee.

California Senate Republican leader Scott Wilk (R-Santa Clarita) also raised his objections on social media, noting many of his constituents commute and would be negatively impacted if a VMT tax replaced the state’s current gas tax.     

“Commuting is a necessity in my district and a per-mile tax would be a huge blow to middle-class families,” Wilk said on Twitter. “I voted no on #SB339, a bad bill pursuing a statewide per mile gas tax. Californians already pay the highest gas prices in the US, why make life more unbearable?”

But in San Diego County, the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), which oversees the county’s transportation system, has also called for new taxes on drivers, including adding ballot measures in November 2022, as part of the agency’s controversial “5 Big Moves,” which estimated to cost $163 billion.

However, the collection methods proposed have faced backlash, especially by local and state republicans. Supervisor Jim Desmond said in a previous interview the county is currently looking at “track and tax” and using an odometer update to register a vehicle through the DMV.

Desmond also noted SANDAG’s broken promises over the years to include more HOV lanes along Interstate 5 and state Route 78 and pointed to the growing number of electric vehicles helping to reduce the county’s greenhouse gas emissions.

At the federal level, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told CNBC that taxing driver per mile “shows a lot of promise.”

“If you believe in that so-called ‘user pays’ principle, the idea that part of how we pay for roads is you pay based on how much you drive. The gas tax used to be the obvious way to do it, it’s not anymore. So a so-called ‘vehicle miles traveled’ tax or mileage tax, whatever you want to call it, could be a way to do it.”

Weiner responded to Buttigieg’s statements on Twitter, “I agree! That’s why I’m authoring #SB339 to authorize a full pilot program for road pricing in California.”

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