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Colorado Dems see car use as alternative to gas tax

John Ingold
The Denver Post

Nestled in the details of a major transportation proposal this year is an idea that could revolutionize how Colorado pays for its road and bridge projects.

The proposal, from statehouse Democrats, calls for pilot projects to study whether the state should do away with its gas tax and adopt a system in which drivers are charged based on how many miles they drive.

“What policymakers are looking at is a sustainable revenue source that they can count on,” said Jim Whitty, an Oregon Department of Transportation official who has become a guru of mileage-based fees.



States across the country are struggling with the weakening of the gas tax as a revenue stream, due to more fuel-efficient vehicles and the political difficulty of raising taxes to keep up with inflation. Colorado is one of several states, including Florida, North Carolina and Ohio, looking at implementing a mileage-based charge on drivers.

But so far no state has actually made the switch or even progressed much beyond the pilot-study phase, demonstrating just how revolutionary ” and challenging ” the concept is.



For starters, it would require a whole new set of technology ” still being developed ” both inside cars and at other points to measure and report miles traveled. And critics raise a host of concerns, from whether such a system would adversely affect rural residents who drive more by necessity to whether the system would allow government to improperly track people’s movements.

“I think it’s unworkable and unwieldy,” said Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Fruita. “Who pays for the transponders? How do you track them? There are a lot of large logistical questions that overwhelm it.”

In the suddenly hot world of mileage-based fee studies, Oregon has been the clear leader. The state launched a pilot project on the idea in 2006, and this year the state’s governor is pushing for lawmakers to create a long-term plan for the switch.



Whitty said one of the chief benefits of a mileage-based system is its malleability. It can be customized to charge people more for driving at rush hour or less for driving in rural areas. It can tax Hummers at a higher rate than Priuses.

“Because this involves computers, you could do any kind of formulas you want,” Whitty said. “. . . Until there are a bunch of proposals to fight over, a lot of these criticisms are premature.”

Colorado state Rep. Joe Rice, D-Littleton, one of the architects of the Democratic transportation proposal known as FASTER, said a mileage-based charge also would be better than the gas tax in another way: It creates a clearer link between how much people use the state’s transportation system and how much they pay.

Rice acknowledged that implementing such a complex system would take plenty of time and study. But he said that effort is worth it to find a more sustainable way to put transportation dollars into the state’s coffers.

“We’ve got to figure out something besides the gas tax,” Rice said. “In my view, we’re not going to get to it in five years or 10 years. But I think we’ve got to start.”

A report released late last year by the Brookings Institution might give lawmakers pause. The report found that the number of vehicle miles traveled nationwide has fallen. In Colorado, the 7.1 percent drop since 2006 was the third-highest in the nation.

Robert Puentes, the study’s author, attributed the drop to greater use of public transportation. Mileage fees, Puentes said, “should be part and parcel of conversations around the future of transportation in this country. But if we’re looking at this as a one-to-one substitute for the gas tax, we’re kidding ourselves.”

Rice and others working on the transportation proposal say they only want to empower communities to think boldly about how to fund transportation.

“Whether using Oregon as a model or not,” state Sen. Dan Gibbs, D-Silverthorne, said, “I think we should really be exploring alternative transportation funding mechanisms.”

John Ingold: 303-954-1068 or jingold@denverpost.com


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