Traffic on Interstate 8
Traffic on Interstate 8 in Mission Valley. File photo by Chris Sone

Some of our elected leaders are working on a plan to tax San Diego drivers for each mile they drive. It’s called a “vehicle miles traveled tax,” also referred to as a VMT tax.

Although increasing taxes is extremely unpopular, our elected leaders and government bureaucrats are pushing to implement some form of VMT tax in the future. The goal of the tax is to replace diminishing gas taxes due to electric cars and increasingly fuel-efficient vehicles.

Opinion logo

Instead of using a tax on fuel consumption as a way of financing transportation infrastructure, a VMT tax charges motorists based on their road use measured in mileage. These charges can be either a flat fee such as a fixed number of cents per mile, regardless of where or when the travel occurs, or a variable fee based on considerations such as time of travel, type of road, type or weight of vehicle, vehicle emission levels, and ability of the owner to pay.

The San Diego Association of Governments‘ plan to collect a per-mile fee from drivers would piggyback on a little-known state program still being designed. California launched its road charge pilot in 2015 at the direction of the Legislature. The program is overseen by the California Transportation Commission, and has so far included more than 5,000 vehicles, from passenger cars to commercial trucks.

 SANDAG expects the state to levy a tax on drivers of roughly 2 cents a mile, onto which it would tack a regional 2-cent charge for a total of 4 cents per mile driven. It is clear that there is a need for a gas tax replacement as fossil fuels are phased out in the fight against climate change, but is taxing drivers per mile the solution?  

Other states have already started experimenting with per-mile fees including Utah and Oregon. Under the Utah program, owners of electric and hybrid vehicles have two options: they can pay an additional alternative fuel flat fee during their annual vehicle registration or be charged 1.5 cents per mile up to the additional flat fee amount. The current alternative fuel flat fees for 2021 are $120 for an electric vehicle, $52 for a plug-in hybrid, and $20 for a gas hybrid.

Oregon lawmakers are considering a bill that would require owners of new, fuel-efficient cars and trucks pay a fee for every mile they drive beginning in 2026. The fee would apply only to owners of new 2027 vehicles that don’t use gas or get 30 miles or more per gallon of gasoline. Drivers would be able to opt out of tracking their mileage and pay a flat annual fee of $400, a provision that would expire in 2030.  

Unlike Utah and Oregon, California drivers already pay 81.45 cents a gallon in total taxes for gasoline, the highest such tax in the nation. And we could be taxed even more if a VMT tax is implemented.

The last thing California residents want, or need, is another tax. With an affordable housing crisis, a seemingly unsolvable homeless situation and skyrocketing crime rates, our elected leaders have their hands full and need to resolve these urgent matters before imposing additional taxes. 

California already ranks among the top 10 most expensive states and a VMT tax will only drive up the costs of goods and services for everyone. And when consumers figure out that purchasing an electric vehicle or a fuel-efficient car doesn’t save the money they expected due to reduced or no gasoline consumption, they might choose a less expensive options that may not be as climate friendly.

A VMT tax may sound fair on the surface — make every driver pay — but all it will do is discourage people from driving. Gasoline taxes also discourage driving; however, they also encourage people to drive more fuel-efficient cars, or cars that don’t rely on gasoline at all in an effort to reduce our carbon footprint. Isn’t that what we really want?

Mark Powell is President of Parents For Quality Education and is Vice President for the San Diego Association of Realtors.