California Road Charge Pilot Program – A Model For Clubbing Tax and Repair Costs

Road charge is an innovative funding mechanism that allows drivers to support road maintenance based on the distance they travel, rather than the amount of gasoline they consume. Think of it as a physical activity recorder for your car (without the trendy wrist accessory).

In the state of California in the US, a year after being directed per Senate Bill (SB) 1077, a pilot program that explores how a road charge can work in California was launched to study road charge as a long-term replacement for the then outdated gas tax, based on the projection that it possibly cannot meet their transportation funding needs in the future.

Why was California Studying a Road Charge?

  • The State Of California was considering a road charge as a potential replacement for the gas tax. The revenues then available for highway and local roads were insufficient for preserving and maintaining road infrastructure, reducing congestion and improving the driving experience.
  • As vehicle fuel efficiency increases, fewer gallons of gas are being purchased, creating a loss in revenue needed to maintain their highway system if the state were to continue with the gas tax.
  • Despite the decline in gas tax revenue, more cars were using California’s roads and the wear and tear on roadways was increasing.
  • California drivers were suffering the consequences of this extra wear and tear on their vehicles. According to TRIP, a national transportation research group, poor road conditions cost the average California driver $762 per year in operating and repair costs.

What was the California Road Charge Pilot?

The California Road Charge Pilot was a 9-month field trial that officially launched on July 1, 2016 and ended on March 2017. The pilot gave participants a variety of choices for reporting and simulating payment for the miles they travel, including several which do not require new technology.

More than 5,000 volunteer participants tested various road charging reporting methods to compare how the performance of each concept measures against an established set of criteria.

This trial was to inform the state Legislature’s decision on whether and how to move forward with a full-scale, permanent road charge program.

This pilot employed strict data security and privacy requirements to protect drivers’ personal information.

The state needed, and must develop, a modern transportation funding model to generate adequate revenue for its road maintenance and improvement needs. 

SB 1077: Authorizing the California Road Charge Pilot and how it came to be

Faced with erosion of motor fuel tax revenues over time, and the need for the state to explore alternative revenue sources that may be implemented in lieu of the antiquated gas tax structure, the California State Legislature passed (and Governor Brown signed) SB 1077, creating the Road Charge Pilot Program as well as a 15-member volunteer “Technical Advisory Committee” (TAC) to study, gather input and make recommendations on the parameters of the pilot.

The TAC was made up of members that represent the telecommunications industry, highway user groups, data security and private industry, privacy rights, advocacy organizations, the equity community, regional transportation agencies, national research and policymaking bodies, including members of the Legislature and other relevant stakeholders. The TAC engaged in a yearlong process to solicit feedback and input from a broad and diverse group of stakeholders. The TAC and pilot program are creations of SB 1077, which directed the California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA) to study and explore road charging. During its process the TAC:

  • Held 12 public meetings throughout the state
  • Reached out and asked for feedback and input from over 400 stakeholder groups and every elected official representing California
  • Conducted public surveys and focus groups to gain a better understanding of the public’s views and opinions of the current condition of California’s roads, perceptions of how transportation is funded, and to gauge public reaction to road charging as a replacement for the gas tax
  • Briefed reporters and newspaper editors in every major news media outlet to elicit help in broadcasting the work of the TAC to the general public

The Legislature also directed that a statewide pilot program be conducted to test various road charging policies, technologies and payment approaches. At a minimum, the pilot program intended to accomplish all of the following:

  • Analyze alternative means of collecting road usage data, including at least one alternative that does not rely on electronic vehicle location data
  • Collect a minimum amount of personal information including location tracking information necessary to implement the California road charge program
  • Ensure that processes for collecting, managing, storing, transmitting, and destroying data are in place to protect the integrity of the data and safeguard the privacy of drivers

Who designed and implemented the California Road Charge Pilot?

The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) officially launched on July 1, 2016 the statewide pilot program to explore road charging. At the conclusion of the pilot, an independent third party evaluatde the pilot results, and CalSTA submitted a report to the Legislature by March 2017 that includes those findings and summarizes the pilot volunteers’ experiences and the stakeholder input received throughout all phases of the process.