California Proposal for Mile Tax to replace Gas Tax – Part 1 – Current Transportation Charges

26 Jan

This is Part 1 of “Exploring a Road Usage Charge as an Alternative to the Gasoline Tax” released by CalSTA (California State Transportation Agency).


Gas taxes pay for highways, local roads, bridges, busses, trains, and even active transportation. However, the current per-gallon tax structure is untenable in the long-term as fuel efficiency increases.  Although total Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) are expected to increase over time, the projected sale of gasoline is expected to decrease dramatically due to increasing fuel efficiency of the vehicle fleet.  One alternative funding approach to this problem is a Road Usage Charge, which is charged on the number of vehicle miles traveled.  This may be a more logical and fairer method of paying for state highway needs in light of high fuel economy and electric drive vehicles.  It is also a direct charge for usage of the transportation system with a clearer nexus between payment and use.  As a new and widely untested alternative funding approach, many questions must be answered prior to any wide-scale changes.  This whitepaper describes the need for a stable revenue source that will address the twin funding problems of inflation and increasing vehicle fuel economy, and some of the challenges therein.

Transportation Infrastructure Charges Relative to Other Services

With perhaps the notable exception of Warren Buffett, nobody publicly admits to wanting to pay more taxes.  Nonetheless, the state’s transportation infrastructure represents an essential component of modern life, and its existence and function relies on some sort of user payment. The transport of people, food, and consumer goods – not to mention vital emergency services – would not be possible without the state’s integrated transportation system.  Though no official number exists, it is roughly estimated that the transportation system in the state is valued in the neighborhood of several trillion dollars; yet users of the system generally pay far less for use of the system than for many daily luxuries.

calsta - average annual cost of select items

The average driver pays just $368 annually in gasoline taxes, including all state, local and federal taxes. Yet, consumers would likely be surprised to find that their annualized payments for use of highways and roads are only about one-third of the cost of their cable bill. This lack of perspective makes it very difficult to engage in any conversation about paying for infrastructure.

The current tax system is a consumption tax.  It is constructed in such a way that leads consumers to think of the taxes on gasoline as a tax for the purchase of gasoline, not on the usage of the roadway network. This somewhat circular logic is perpetuated by the fact that the taxes on gasoline are just a proxy for a tax on the use of the transportation system.  The direct link between use of the system and paying for that system does not exist.  A useful means of guiding this discussion is to shift the focus from a tax, to a charge for use of a crucial utility, just as people think about their use of electricity, water and internet access.

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