State, national columnists

California’s deteriorating highways need a different revenue system

By From page A9 | June 22, 2014

There was a time, four or five decades ago, when financing, building and maintaining California’s immense highway network was considered to be the Capitol’s most important work.

No more.

Highways have slipped below the political radar, even though Californians rack up more than 300 billion miles of automotive travel each year and even though the highways suffer from severe deficiencies that would, the California Transportation Commission says, cost $700 billion over the next decade to erase, several times what current revenue would produce.

As noted in this space previously, an ideological disdain for highways among liberals, combined with an equally fierce dislike of taxes among conservatives, has been a recipe for political neglect.

California’s vehicular travel has doubled during the last 30 years, but fuel consumption has risen by only one-third – good news overall but bad news for our battered highways.

A long-standing tax system based on fuel volume has become obsolete as autos have become more fuel-efficient.

Meanwhile, electric vehicles bypass tax-collecting fuel pumps altogether, even though they add to congestion and highway wear.

Inflation compounds the crisis.

A study by the University of Souther California estimates that with adjustment for inflation, the state’s gas tax is worth much less than 50 percent of what it was in 1970, even with some rate increases during the period.

Basing road revenue on fuel gallonage, or even prices, is no longer realistic, and we should shift to mileage-based financing. It’s kicked around transportation circles for decades, but is gaining new traction among highway advocates.

The state Senate has approved a bill by Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, which would, as recently amended, create a “Mileage-Based Fee Task Force” within the California Transportation Commission to recommend a pilot project.

As passed by the Senate, Senate Bill 1077 would have ordered the California Transportation Agency to develop the pilot program, but the amended version adopts a more circuitous process.

The USC study said that a mileage fee of 2.1 cents per mile could completely replace the gas tax, and while it could take many forms, all raise questions of privacy. If travel is to be monitored and taxed, then how can the data be collected without a governmental Big Brother knowing where motorists are driving?

One big aspect of the proposed pilot project, therefore, will be to devise ways to protect personal privacy, and it’s not impossible. Oregon has devised a fee system that passes muster with the American Civil Liberties Union.

SB 1077 is just a baby step, and given the underlying political divisions, it may lead nowhere, even if the Assembly approves the bill. But it’s a start. Highways are not improving with age.

Dan Walters is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee. Reach him as [email protected]

Dan Walters


Discussion | 12 comments

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  • Tax PayerJune 22, 2014 - 6:20 am

    The "Bullet Train" will take care of all of these issues. Only $68+ billion dollars of wasteful spending on a project to serve a few. Kinda like our bus systems. Watch the buses travel around Vacaville each day. Especially when the kids are on summer break. Very few ride it and this will be with our governors beloved project also! Wake up citizens it is all happening right under your noses!

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  • Tax PayerJune 22, 2014 - 6:23 am

    They will place GPS units in all vehicles so if you drive too much you will get additional taxes. If you don't pay any taxes, illegal aliens, you won't have to worry about this. Good old California going after he extinction of the middle class tax by tax!

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  • CD BrooksJune 22, 2014 - 6:48 am

    Tax Payer, Police and Insurance companies have been trying for years to get their hands on our car's computer systems. Imagine what they would do with that information!

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  • CD BrooksJune 22, 2014 - 6:50 am

    This is an interesting concept and we need funding to properly maintain our roadways. In California we have many retired people that drive less frequently and that number will continue to decline for several years. On one hand it's only fair to charge those that actually do the most driving thus the most damage to the road ways. But we all contribute or have done so over the years and of course many retired people are now travelling with motor homes so I suppose it balances out. On the surface this appears to be a reasonable plan, but I’m curious as to how they will implement it.

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  • FDCJune 22, 2014 - 7:30 am

    "...a mileage fee of 2.1 cents per mile could completely replace the gas tax..." But would it? Of course not. The merry band of thieves in Sacramento would keep the gas tax, then spend the 2.1 cents per mile new tax on something other than highways, just as they spend the gas tax now. Insanity! Next election, DRIP. Don't Return Incumbent Politicians.

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  • JagJune 22, 2014 - 9:04 am

    How about if we just we are highway tax dollars and bridge toll money for the highways, the problem is this money also is used to subsides bus system like AC transit and the ferry system so here is an idea, if they system can’t operate on their current income they go out of business like anyone else, If we want to go down the road of (you use it you pay for it) than how about only people that use the school system pay for it and everyone else does not have to pay that tax.

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  • Mike KirchubelJune 22, 2014 - 9:12 am

    What a great Republican idea, JAG. Let's set the whole country up for failure, where only the rich survive.

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  • JagJune 22, 2014 - 9:45 am

    I understand your point Mike, so to be fair we change it all to a user based system or we leave it as a tax based system,

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  • Mike KirchubelJune 22, 2014 - 10:58 am

    Jag, your question provides only two choices: all or nothing and that may be convenient for your argument, but that's not how the world works.. For the highways, we have a system in place where we are all taxed, but those who actually use the roads pay more in the form of a gasoline tax. How the electric cars should be taxed is open for discussion. As far as our schools, we are all taxed because we all benefit from the fact that there aren't hundreds of millions of people running around the streets without an education. Guess what that would look like.

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  • JagJune 22, 2014 - 1:09 pm

    Trust me Mike I am not that smart to make a topic covenant for my argument, I did not even think about electric cars until you pointed it out and they should have to pay something, I am just a simple guy that gets up and goes to work in S.F every day and comments on how I see things, but let me ask you in your view would it be ok for FF to have a charter school with higher tuition that uses tax dollars but if I choose to use it I would have to pay the additional cost?

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  • mike kirchubelJune 22, 2014 - 1:29 pm

    Let ne try to answer that by asking you a question: how do you feel about tax dollars going to fund private corporations? It seems like a corporation getting tax dollars would have a tremedous advantage over other businesses. How would you justify that to the other companies trying to make it on their own?

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  • JagJune 22, 2014 - 1:53 pm

    Tax dollars should not go to private corporations, but education is expensive if you want to get out of the typical 30 child class room basic education size and prefer the addition help with a smaller setting then you are still using the school system but you are using an upgrade for an additional cost, It is like Los Angeles has toll roads you can choose to sit in traffic for the basic road or pay to use the more wide open less crowded better paved road that uses both public and private funding.

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