California to test taxing drivers by the mile

California to test taxing drivers by the mile
© Wikimedia Commons

Some drivers in California will soon pay taxes based on how many miles they travel, instead of how many gallons of gas they buy, The Associated Press reports

The plan, known in transportation circles as Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT), has faced opposition in Washington, where it has been floated as alternative to the 18.4 cents per gallon gas tax that is currently used to pay for infrastructure projects.

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California is moving ahead with a pilot program that will involve 5,000 drivers who will volunteer to track their mileage via one of five manual and automated means, according to the report. 

State officials have stressed that participants in the mileage fee pilot program will not be forced to install GPS trackers on their cars. 

"Participants do not need to purchase or install any new technology to be part of the pilot, and many can use existing technology such as smartphones and their vehicle odometer," the California Department of Transportation says in a frequently asked questions section of its Road Charge website.

"The pilot will give participants several options for reporting mileage, including those which do not require technology in the vehicle or mileage reporting," the website continued. 

Transportation advocates in Washington have suggested moving to a mileage-based fee system as receipts from the gas tax have dwindled in recent years, but found little support in Congress. 

The normal source for transportation projects is revenue collected by the federal gas tax. The tax has not been increased since 1993, however, and the pace of infrastructure expenses is outpacing it, as cars become more fuel efficient.

The federal government typically spends approximately $50 billion per year in road and transit spending, but the gas tax only brings in about $34 billion per year. 

The $305 billion transportation bill approved by Congress last year included a package of offsets from other areas of the federal budget that totaled about $70 billion to close the gap long enough to pay for five years' worth of highway and transit projects. 

Transportation advocates have suggested a switch to a mileage-based program as an alternative to raising the gas tax, but critics have raised concerns about government officials tracking the movements of drivers. 

The Obama administration and Republicans in Congress have in the past distanced themselves from both mileage-based driver fees and an increase in the gas tax. The president and lawmakers have instead talked up using revenue from taxing corporate profits that are stored overseas to pay for roads.  

The 2015 highway bill calls for spending approximately $205 billion on highways and $48 billion on transit projects over the next five years, with the remainder of the funding being largely dedicated to safety programs. The measure includes a grant program known as the Surface Transportation System Funding Alternatives that provides $95 million to help states like California study alternatives to using dwindling gas tax revenue to pay for transportation projects. 

Prior to passing the highway bill, Congress had not passed a transportation funding package that lasted longer than two years since 2005, much to the chagrin of infrastructure advocates in Washington. 

California is the second state to test mileage fees in recent years, joining Oregon, which launched a pilot program of its own in 2014.