Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed Senate Bill 339 into law, approving an extended road usage charge (RUC) pilot program through Jan. 1, 2027, that tracks California drivers and charges them a tax according to their vehicle miles traveled.
Sponsored by Transportation California, the bill was authored by state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and supported by the California Transportation Commission. Assemblymembers David Chiu (D-San Francisco) and Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), and state Sens. Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont) and Josh Newman (D-Fullerton) co-authored the legislation.
The passage is a victory for legislators in favor of public policies focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, supporting Newsom’s ban on combustion engine vehicles by 2035.
The move could generate an alternative revenue stream to combat shrinking gas taxes in order to fund California’s infrastructure, as drivers make the transition to hybrid and electric fuel-efficient vehicles.
“With many drivers—particularly wealthier drivers—switching to electric vehicles, and with Governor Gavin Newsom’s recent executive order banning the sale of new internal combustion engine vehicles by 2035, the road charge pilot program offers an alternative option for transportation and road funding,” Wiener’s office stated in a press release.
“Right now, California’s road maintenance and transportation funding comes primarily from the gas tax, which must be constantly adjusted and raised due to inflation and increasing car fuel efficiency. The Gas Tax Alternative Pilot would expand the current California Road Charge Pilot to further explore a ‘user pays’ system that requires drivers pay for their vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in order to fund road and highway infrastructure and maintenance.”
In 2014, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 1077 to investigate a long-term, sustainable transportation funding mechanism as a potential replacement to the gas tax.
As a result, California developed a pilot program that followed more than 5,000 vehicles, logging in excess of 37 million miles over a nine-month duration. The California State Transportation Agency’s final report, the California Road Charge Pilot Program (pdf), was released in 2017.
The 24-page document states, “Continuing to depend on a consumption-based transportation model, while at the same time adopting policies to increase vehicle fuel efficiency and promote the reduction of vehicle miles traveled, puts into question the long-term viability of the gas tax as a sustainable revenue model.”
SB 1328, authored by state Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose) and passed in 2018, established a mileage-based road usage fee.
Opponents say California taxpayers are already being charged enough by some of the highest gas prices in the nation.
In a Sept. 3 Facebook post, state Sen. Pat Bates (R-Laguna Niguel) said she voted against the extension.
“California has the highest gas tax in the country, yet the majority party approved SB 339, which will lay the groundwork for charging drivers with a mileage tax. I voted no!” wrote Bates, who sits on the Senate Transportation Committee.
The new law requires the California Transportation Commission to create an RUC Technical Advisory Committee that will consult with the CA Secretary of Transportation, gather public comment, and study RUC alternatives.
The committee is required to submit its recommendations by July 1, 2023, to the transportation agency outlining the program’s design and revenue collection.
The program will be voluntary to non-state-owned vehicles, with one group subject to a fee per mile traveled, and the other an individually calculated fee per mile traveled equal to the state per gallon fuel tax, divided by the EPA’s estimated fuel economy rating based on the manufacturer, model, and year of a vehicle.
Volunteers who participate would receive a credit or a refund for fuel taxes or electric vehicle fees. However, the law doesn’t specify how the state will collect the necessary information to track each car’s mileage.
“It is imperative that we continue collecting data on road charges as more electric vehicles hit the road each day. We must prioritize new funding programs for transportation infrastructure, especially public transit, and the Gas Tax Alternative Pilot will do just that,” Wiener said in a statement.