Monday, June 9, 2014

CA Vehicle Mileage-Based Tax: Cut the Waste and Red Tape first

Before the state even thinks about implementing a mileage-based tax to all motorists, it must control the spending of our money and streamline the regulatory process of expanding transit infrastructure.

Coalition Concept: High Occupancy Toll Lanes along the I-15 Freeway near Ontario which supports free non-transponder carpooling. In lieu of a mileage-based tax, HOT lanes can provide extra funding for basic maintenance and expanded express transit service along busy freeway corridors.
Note: Concept Only. Not endorsed by SANBAG, Caltrans or any public agency.

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director
riversidetransit@gmail.com


Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord introduced a statewide bill which would initiate a pilot program which would study a mileage based fee as a means to fund statewide transportation infrastructure.

According to the Legislative Counsel's Digest, SB 1077 would require the California State Transportation Agency by January 1, 2016 to develop this pilot program designed to assess specified issues related to implementing a mileage-based fee within the state which would replace the state's fuel excise tax.

This bill would require the state agency at a minimum, to assess certain issues related to implementing this fee, including, among others, different methods for calculating mileage and collecting road use information, processes for managing, storing, transmitting, and destroying data to protect the integrity of the data and ensure drivers' privacy, and costs associated with the implementation and operation of the MBF system, as specified. The bill would also require the agency to prepare and submit a specified report of its findings to the policy and fiscal committees of the Legislature no later than June 30, 2017. The bill would require the report to include, among other things, recommendations on how best to implement an MBF, as specified, and recommendations regarding public and private agency access to MBF data that ensures privacy rights as protected by the California Constitution. The bill would also repeal these provisions on January 1, 2018.

It's quite clear that following this pilot program, should the mileage-based "fee" be imposed to all drivers in the future, what we will really see is a transportation infrastructure tax hike. Namely, if you drive a car anywhere in the state, the taxman will come.

There are some people who would support such a policy since the argument for it is certainly valid. If more and more gas-electric hybrids and all-electric cars do become the norm, fuel tax funds at both the state and federal level will be threatened as demands for fuel will decrease. On the other side, there are many who are flat out against it simply because the governments have squandered existing fuel tax revenues. The feds took in record fuel tax receipts in 2012 even with inflation. State fuel tax receipts were also at record levels, but our infrastructure still generally remains sub-par in areas all over the country which includes Inland Empire highways. Where has all that money gone? One individual who I spoke to plans to relocate to Arizona should this pilot program materialize into a permanent tax.

The fact remains that government overspending and waste occurs over and over again. We all remember the costly red tape from the state level which delayed the opening of Phase I of the French Valley Parkway project. How about the $8 million that was handed out to California High Speed Rail contractors to simply submit losing bids? What about the $10 Million Bay Oakland Bay Bridge PR scandal? Let's not forget the state rules and regulations that are forcing local agencies to spend an outrageous $15,000 per-space cost for a proposed $2.36 million 157-space Park & Ride lot in Temecula.

The truth also is the federal Highway Trust Fund is in dire fiscal trouble. I want our infrastructure projects, maintenance and transit operations to be paid for, but I'm not going to back a tax increase of this magnitude to anybody until such wasteful government spending stops. We're finally seeing some honest reportage of this situation. The Washington Times published this editorial last Friday echoing what we've been mentioning for some time.

How can we stop this runaway money fountain? Here are some fair alternatives that I submit into the debate to maintain a robust  network which won't require a tax increase nor depend on fuel taxes:

  1. Streamlining and reforming California's complex regulatory code. Make public works transportation projects more cost efficient which do not pander to the special interests. Get costs in line with the market rates. The system needs to allow the marketplace to get more involved in improving the infrastructure with efficient state and federal oversight. A place to start is expanding California's Adopt-A-Highway system beyond litter removal, graffiti clean-up, and landscaping. The program should allow the private sector to help maintain the highways in return for a tax rebate.

    Coalition Concept: Officials envision the possibility of extending the award-winning I-15 Express Lanes in San Diego County north into Temecula where big development plans are in store for Jefferson Avenue; however, no public funding sources have been identified. Why can't the developers offset the traffic impacts by paying for, designing and constructing both the HOT lane master plan and high speed rail in return for a tax break?
    Note: Concept Only. Not endorsed by any public entity.
    Why can't the private sector take charge of building up and maintaining the infrastructure? What exactly is stopping commercial property owners who rely on working surface transportation from paying for and patching up the potholes themselves, repaving and restriping the boulevards, and making them complete streets in return for a nice tax break? Why can't an entrepreneur who may want to invest in a tourist destination on affordable land in Victorville hire its own construction crew to design and build out SANBAG's master plan of high occupancy toll lanes through the Cajon Pass as well as expand intercity passenger rail services to offset traffic impacts? Why can't a developer build an enterprise zone and job hub over the parking lot of the Riverside Downtown Metrolink station so that both the Riverside Transit Center and a pedestrian bridge across the 91 freeway can be built quickly without us having to wait for years? The federal rules also need to be streamlined so that the Highway Trust Fund money returned to us actually goes toward robust transportation infrastructure, not to other programs.

  2. If all-electric cars do become the norm, have economists figure out exactly how much more money that would otherwise be going into the gas tank is being spent in other areas of the market economy. Find out how much more sales and income taxes the government is taking in thanks to the economic growth stimulated by not having to pay outrageous prices at the gas pump.  Use that difference to allocate funds from the general fund to surface transportation.

  3. High Occupancy Toll Lanes: Solo drivers have demonstrated repeatedly that they are willing to tax themselves into a faster moving carpool lane. Such tolls can help pay for basic maintenance of the freeway corridor and expanded express transit services. Ensure HOT lanes support free non-transponder carpooling to maximize the number of people per vehicle which can help reduce wear on the highway. HOT lanes have already proven to be reliable.

If the state government is looking to replace the fuel excise tax for transportation revenue, this is a potential solution that should be debated. The point state lawmakers should consider is this: Get the red-tape bureaucracy, pandering, and government waste out of the way so that we can have a first-rate transportation system.

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