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CDOT gets good reviews on test of mileage-based system but concerns remain

A four-month study designed to measure Coloradans’ appetite for overhauling how the state pays for roads offers a glimpse of the challenges that await as changing technology erodes the clout of gasoline taxes.

The study enlisted 150 drivers to evaluate the prospect of calculating state transportation funding based on the miles they drive. Several issues emerged from the broadly positive results, including privacy concerns stemming from the program’s use of GPS, the challenge of collecting revenue from out-of-state motorists traveling through Colorado and the appearance of punishing drivers of electric or fuel-sipping vehicles.

“In order to get closer to making a pitch for implementation, we have to answer more questions,” said Tim Kirby, a planning manager with the Colorado Department of Transportation. “We’re at the beginning stages of research.”

CDOT released results Tuesday from its Road Usage Charge Pilot Program, which was conducted from December 2016 through April of this year, as it seeks to identify more stable sources of road tax revenue.

The good news is that the initial feedback from the study was generally positive. More than 90 percent of participants thought the system, which let drivers record and report their mileage manually or with a device plugged into their car, was accurate and easy to use.

And 81 percent of participants said a road usage charge is a “fair funding method” to address the glaring needs of a state trying to maintain the health of its roads and bridges in the face of rapid population growth.

“It comes closest to having the people who are actively impacting the system compensating for that use,” said Kathy Gilliland, a Greeley resident and pilot program participant who reported her mileage to CDOT using a GPS-enabled device plugged into her 1999 Toyota Camry. “It was outstanding — you plugged it in and just forgot about it.”

The charge-per-mile idea for funding road building and maintenance is not new in the United States. It’s an approach that has been looked at for years as gasoline taxes stagnated — the 18.4-cents-per-gallon federal gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1993, and Colorado’s 22-cent gas tax last got a boost 26 years ago.

The taxes are not indexed to inflation, so as prices for concrete and other construction materials rise, there is no equivalent rise in the value of the levy at the pump, Kirby said.

Throw in the fact that vehicles have been getting increasingly fuel-efficient in the last couple of decades, with more hybrid and electric cars on the road than ever, and revenues from a gas tax are less assured with every passing year.

“We’re getting less money, the value of that money is going down and our needs are going up,” Kirby said. “We’re looking at our revenue situation, and we’re falling off a cliff.”

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