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The Ride: Road charge vs. gas tax

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Anyone who’s wrecked a tire in a pothole knows California’s infrastructure is in dire shape. The average Californian spends $762 each year to repair damage caused by poorly maintained roads, according to the state's Department of Transportation.

The reason they’re so poorly maintained: California's coffers are $60 billion short to fund badly needed road maintenance. Those repairs have traditionally been paid with a gas tax charged every time a driver fills up his tank, but that tax hasn’t increased in more than two decades. Meanwhile, the state's roads and bridges continue to crumble.

Paying by the mile v. paying by the gallon

But California is experimenting with a new system that would fund repairs with fees based on the number of miles a person drives — not the amount of fuel he uses. It’s called the Road Charge pilot program.

Launched this summer with 5,000 volunteers, 50 of which are freight trucks, Road Charge is designed to test various methods for charging drivers by the mile. The funds would be used to help repair infrastructure.

Billions needed to fund repairs

Nationally, the U.S. needs $3.6 trillion in infrastructure improvements, according to the web site,; the site gives California's transportation system a grade of C-. The Federal Highway Administration underscored the severity of the problem this week when it said per-capita highway spend is 25 percent lower today than it was in 1970 in dollars adjusted for inflation.

Established to fund transportation projects, the gas tax has existed in most states since 1928, but as cars have become more fuel efficient, the amount of monies collected through the gas tax has decreased.

It's likely to continue decreasing in states like California, where Governor Jerry Brown has called for the majority of cars sold in the state to be low or no emissions, i.e. gasoline- and gas-tax-free, by 2030. CalTrans estimates that half of the revenue it could have collected from the gas tax will be lost to fuel efficiency in 14 years.

How the Road Charge works

The Road Charge pilot is studying five different types of monitoring systems:

- A time permit that allows unlimited road use for a set period of time;

- A mileage permit that allows drivers to prepay for a set number of miles;

- An odometer charge so drivers pay a fee per mile based on periodic odometer readings;

- And automated mileage reporting offered with or without general location data.

Each system offered through the pilot program is free; no actual money is being charged to drivers, although during the sign-up process the pilot's volunteers are walked through a mock payment screen.

Some of the monitoring systems use an OBD, or On-Board Diagnostics, device that plugs in to the car to track miles; others use an app that allow drivers to register their cars and occasionally submit odometer readings.

Privacy is a matter of choice

While some of the systems track the driver's movements, the California Senate Bill that established the pilot program made sure at least one alternative was available that does not rely on electronic vehicle location data. It also makes sure that the data gathering system collects the minimum amount of personal information necessary to understand miles driven.

In Oregon state, which launched a similar pilot program last summer, drivers voluntarily signed up to pay 1.5 cents per mile instead of paying a fuel tax. Drivers had the option of installing either a tracking device on their vehicles that reported their mileage or prepaying a set amount based on their mileage and agreeing to have their odometers checked on a regular basis.

What it will cost drivers

A 2015 study from U.S. Department of Transportation found no statistically significant difference in the cost of the two programs to California households.

Electric vehicle drivers, however, will no longer be immune from paying for road repairs by virtue of using electricity as a fuel. Electricity isn't taxed for road repairs. According to CalTrans, the idea of the road charge is that all vehicles, regardless of fuel source, damage the roads.

When the Road Charge might take effect

The Road Charge pilot is slated to last nine months, after which the data will be analyzed and presented to the California Legislature during its 2017 session for a vote on whether to replace the state's gas tax with a road charge.