Transit agency broaches new tax based on miles traveled

Highway 25

The county transit agency is required to put together a long-term funding blueprint every four years. That “Regional Transportation Plan” includes forecasts for future needs and budgets, and officials with the Council of San Benito County Governments are now developing the 2014 document.

While the agency’s executive director Thursday announced an estimated $317 million shortfall over 25 years to fund all of the plan’s objectives, she also broached ideas for revenue sources that included a new sales tax or something called a “vehicle miles traveled” tax – which entails levying charges based on how many miles are driven, or how much time motorists spend in vehicles.

A VMT tax involves using some sort of GPS tracking device installed in vehicles that transmits the volume of driving and tax owed.

Local transportation agencies generate their revenue through a range of sources such as the gas tax and vehicle license fees. In its most recently finished 2010 Regional Transportation Plan, COG projected total spending over 25 years of $762 million and total revenue of $484 million – leaving a $278 million shortfall in that document as well. COG officials discussed goals in preparing the 2014 document at Thursday’s board meeting, where they revealed the $317 million shortfall figure.

The VMT tax concept, like others in a fiscally challenged transportation industry increasingly open to alternative methods for taxation, has barely entered experimental stages and may never pan out. Such thinking is the result of transit and transportation agencies taking a particular financial hit from drastic decreases in gas tax revenue, largely due to increased use of fuel-efficient vehicles. There have been fewer dollars from traditional sources to spend on public infrastructure projects and even basic transit operations – COG’s annual operating budget was $3 million in 2011-12, the most recently posted figures on its website – so transportation planners are looking elsewhere.

At Thursday’s COG board meeting, agency officials broached a VMT tax and sales tax as prospective ways to help fund local projects for those 25 years. Their discussion came on the heels of stalled efforts to partner with surrounding counties on a tolling system for a new Highway 152.

COG Executive Director Lisa Rheinheimer said the agency is “looking at all the various options out there.” She called the vehicle miles traveled tax idea “just a discussion” and referenced similar talks in states like Oregon and among regional transportation planners in California.

“But you know, it’s just throwing all the ideas in the pot,” Rheinheimer said. “Some of them won’t ever come to fruition.”

Rheinheimer said the agency needs to find additional money for such matters as street and road maintenance, putting in new roads and bicycle lanes, new bike facilities, and the river trail.

Transportation attorney Joe Thompson, a regular critic of COG at public meetings, argued that the agency is short of funding because transit users don’t pay enough to cover costs. He said he believes in full cost recovery and user-fee funding. And he said motorists already pay more than their fair share.

Thompson, meanwhile, noted that COG has a fare box recovery rate of around 12 percent and said it is even lower when Jovenes de Antano’s senior services are included in the equation.

“If you want to take a bus ride, go right ahead,” Thompson said. “You pay for it.”

Of a VMT tax, he said, “I think it’s the wrong way to approach the issue of providing funds to do transportation.”

Look back for more and see the full story in next week’s Free Lance.


What are Regional Transportation Plans?

Since the mid-1970s, with the passage of Assembly Bill 69 (AB 69, Chapter 1253, Statutes of 1972) California state law has required the preparation of Regional Transportation Plans (RTPs) to address transportation issues and assist local and state decision-makers in shaping California’s transportation infrastructure.

Source: California Transportation Commission

Leave your comments