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Making road use taxes fair for everyone
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Take a drive down Austin Road just south of East Highway 120.
At various times of the year you will see a bunch of cars parked on the edge of a field where crews tend to rows upon rows of strawberry plants whose roots will be harvested for resale.
It’s hard work.
The vehicles are a mix of aging mini-vans, Hondas from the 1990s, decades old Chevy Suburbans, and an occasional dinosaur from the production era of massive V8s.
While the pay is decent, they aren’t making anywhere near the money to buy a new $72,000 Tesla or even a used hybrid or used electric vehicle for that matter.
The consulting group known as Oceanus Automotive conducted research that shows the typical electric car buyer is from a household with an average income of $108,624. That’s a bit above the pay grade of a field worker.
When a field worker buys a clunker, they get no tax rebates. Buyers of  new all-electric vehicles in California get a $7,500 federal tax credit and a $2,500 state tax credit or roughly half of what a field worker makes in a year.
Every time that farm worker pumps gas into their clunker that doesn’t exactly get the highest gas mileage possible, they are paying 27.8 cents per gallon in taxes to maintain the state’s highway system. The Tesla driver — or the owner of any all-electric vehicle — doesn’t pay a cent even though they typically travel much more than a farm worker.
As an added stick-it-to-the-working-class, the elites in Sacramento have committed 20 percent of the hidden greenhouse tax paid per gallon of gasoline that was slapped on oil refineries to help underwrite high speed rail.
That means the buyers of expensive all-electric vehicles typically from households averaging $108,624 a year will be able to drive vehicles they got $10,000 in tax credits for buying to a high speed rail station on roads that they don’t pay a cent to maintain. They can then plunk down $90 for a partially subsidized ticket to take the bullet train.
That means they can look out the window as they whisk along at 235 mph per hour through the San Joaquin Valley to watch the men and women  toil in the fields who are paying to maintain the roads they use for free as well as help subsidize the cushy air conditioned train ride.
There is no argument that anything about how California road upkeep is paid for is fair or equitable.
Nor is there an argument that it raises inadequate funds to get the job done.
California — back in 1963 when Jerry Brown’s father Pat was governor — was the envy of the world for its cutting edge freeway system. Today, the Reason Institute ranked California 45th in road quality as well as having the highest number of deficient bridges.
The foundation estimates the state’s poor quality of roads from potholes to congestion adds $44 billion annually to the cost of operating vehicles.
Caltrans in 2015 estimated the cost of road repairs will exceed funding by $5.7 billion annually for the next decade. Toss in local government road upkeep and Caltrans puts the shortfall for transportation infrastructure over the next 10 years at $137 billion.
The gas tax used to cover the tab. That is no longer the case for two reasons: The tax was never indexed to inflation. Gas consumption peaked in 2005 and has been steadily dropping while miles driven has risen slightly thanks to better fuel economy, hybrids and electrics.
While the tax is inadequate, hybrid drivers are shirking some of their fair share based on miles driven and electric drivers have been getting a free ride that is subsidized to boot.
Scrapping all road-related taxes on gasoline and switching to a tax based on miles driven would make things more equitable.
A University of Southern California study estimates a 2.1 cent per mile tax would be adequate. That compares to the current 27.8 cent per gallon tax for road maintenance. If you are getting 22 miles per gallon that is the equivalent of a 1.24 cent tax per mile driven. That’s about a 75 percent tax increase. But then again we are talking about a $137 billion shortfall in maintenance work designed to keep roads drivable and reasonably safe.
There are various ways to assess and collect the tax. Oregon does it best giving motorists a choice between an electronic device without global positioning technology or opting to pay a flat fee based on a maximum numbers of miles it is assumed they will drive.
A VMT could be assessed easily on out-of-state trucks that now avoid paying any California road maintenance taxes by fueling up before they enter the state and fueling up after they leave. The VMT could be assessed at weigh stations based on the miles between the border and their in-state destination.
Collecting a VMT on non-trucks from out-of-state would be problematic but the wear and tear would be minimal.
Critics claim such a system takes away incentives to reduce fuel consumption and therefore reduce air pollution. It’s a hallow criticism given the draconian federal and state air quality mandates California is under and how the auto industry is being forced to meet them.
As for drivers of bigger passenger vehicles that do more wear and tear to roads getting a break compared to smaller vehicles, that could be remedied by having a per mile surcharge for cars, SUVs, and pickups over a certain rate.
No one likes more taxes.
But then no one likes poorly maintained roads either.
That said, how we pay to maintain this state’s aging road system offers a perfect opportunity to put in place a fair tax that eliminates breaks that have been given to the better off by politicians.