States to consider mileage tax


Mar 12, 2001
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August 12, 2004

State to consider mileage tax

By: DAVE DOWNEY - Staff Writer North County Times

Picture this: You're cruising down the freeway and the fuel tank is on "E," so you pull off at the next exit to fill up. When you go to pay at the gas station counter, your bill includes tax based on the number of miles you drove since your last fillup. The mileage is automatically calculated by a transponder in your car that transmits the total to a machine inside the station. Sound far-fetched? It might not be.

A state commission studying ways to thin Sacramento's bulky bureaucracy suggested last week that California move toward replacing the gasoline tax with a mileage tax, as a way to boost sagging transportation revenues at a time when rapid population growth is straining the state highway system.

The commission recommended following the lead of a task force in Oregon that wants to test the concept of a mileage tax in one of its cities, Eugene, in 2005.

James Whitty, manager of the Oregon Department of Transportation's innovations program, said if the yearlong Eugene experiment is successful and the state Legislature later agrees ---- probably in 2007 ---- to pursue the program, Oregon would become the first state in the country to go to such a tax.

Under the program, all 2,000 Oregon stations would be equipped with computers for calculating the tax and all new cars would have transponders to track and report miles driven.

The idea of a mileage tax was one of scores of recommendations contained in a 2,500-page report produced last week by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's California Performance Review Commission. Besides calling for a sweeping overhaul of state government, the report proposed initiatives that aim to increase program efficiency and keep money flowing into state coffers.

Joan Borucki, the commission's infrastructure team leader, said there is growing concern about the bite being taken out of gas-tax revenues because of last year's move to mix gasoline with ethanol, which is not taxed, and the growing popularity of electric cars and gas-electric hybrids. And hydrogen vehicles may not be far behind. "Gas itself could be going away in the future," Borucki said.

Consequently, she said, "We've got to start looking at an alternative, or a replacement, for the gasoline tax. The mileage tax is not so much a way to increase revenue, as it is a way to maintain what we have now." However, the trail Oregon is blazing on the issue is troubling to many in California.

Whitty said the Oregon task force recommended a flat tax for everyone, rather than one that rewards fuel economy and the varying gasoline taxes motorists pay now. The panel proposed charging a fee that would generate the same amount of money as the existing 24-cent-a-gallon tax, he said. Based on average gas mileage of 20 miles per gallon. motorists would pay 1.2 cents per mile.

Whitty said the panel chose to set a flat rate because the tax, philosophically, is based on the notion that most vehicles, no matter how efficient, tend to occupy about the same space on the road. And he said panel members prefer to reward fuel economy other ways.

But Ron Roberts, a Temecula councilman and president of the Southern California Association of Governments Regional Council, said a flat rate would penalize commuters who drive dozens of miles from their homes in Riverside County to jobs in San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles counties. "They're already paying more gas taxes than anybody else, and to make them suffer more by paying this vehicle-miles-traveled tax instead is ludicrous," Roberts said.

He said many Riverside County commuters choose high-mileage compact cars for the very reason that they save money on gasoline and gas taxes. Roberts added that the regional council, as it formulated a new regional transportation plan several months ago for a booming six-county region of 17 million residents, overwhelmingly rejected the idea of a mileage tax as a way to raise money for new freeways and train systems. The Southern California association makes plans for Riverside, Orange, Los Angeles, Ventura, San Bernardino and Imperial counties.

Scott Barnett, a former San Diego County tax-watchdog group leader and former Del Mar councilman, said a flat fee is unfair. "You're going to give people an incentive to buy gas-guzzlers," Barnett said. And as for the need to get revenue from vehicles that use non-gasoline fuels, Barnett said, "Why don't they just tax those other cars?"

Lynne Baker, attorney for the Endangered Habitats League in San Diego, said a flat fee also ignores the fact that big trucks cause much more wear and tear on roads than a compact car driving the same miles. "It probably falls short of trying to address the true impacts on the roads by a variety of vehicles," Baker said.

Diana Rosas, who drives 50 miles from her home in Menifee to her job in Oceanside, said a mileage tax probably would not work here. "Maybe it would work in a state where people's commutes aren't 50 miles one way," Rosas said.

The first of five public hearings planned around the state on the California Performance Review report is set for 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday at UC Riverside's University Lecture Hall, 900 University Ave., Riverside.
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