SALT LAKE CITY — Utah drivers may not have to pay government fees based on the miles they drive for decades, but a voluntary pilot program to test the substitute for gas taxes could be in place in a year or so.
"It's not ready for prime time at this point," Carlos Braceras, executive director of the Utah Department of Transportation, told members of the Legislature's Transportation Governance and Funding Task Force Wednesday.
But he said such fees, known as a road-use charge, may someday be the way to go.
"I'm a strong believer in you pay for what you use and in fairness. And I believe that this is the path toward a fairer funding source for transportation," said Braceras, who also chairman of RUC West, a group of transportation leaders from Western states researching road-usage fees.
He told the committee UDOT would like to conduct a small demonstration project in the state with about 100 volunteers even though implementing such a program for all drivers could be 20 years away.
UDOT already collects fees based on road use through the electronic toll system along I-15 based on billing done by a third-party provider charged with keeping the information private, Braceras said.
After the meeting, he said the project could be put together as soon as next spring using federal research funds. Participants would likely self-report their travel over a year rather than use costly electronic monitoring, Braceras said.
There probably wouldn't be a financial incentive involved, he said, even though a pilot program with a $4 million price tag already underway in Oregon provides refunds of gas taxes paid when they exceed the 1.5 cent per-mile fee.
Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, co-chairman of the two-year task force, said he'd like to see the Utah project underway after the 2018 Legislature sets parameters.
"It's something we have to keep on the table," Harper said of the funding source.
The task force's other co-chairman, Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, said the administrative expenses associated with road-user fees are too high at this point to make them a viable replacement for gas taxes.
Schultz said someone driving a vehicle that gets 20 mpg 12,000 miles a year currently pays $175 in gas taxes at the pump, about the same amount it would cost just to collect a road-user fee based on Oregon's experience.
He said it's also too soon to make the shift.
"I don't think the public's quite ready for that yet. I don't think the Legislature is, either," Schultz said, but that could change in the coming decades as new technologies make the gas tax obsolete.
"We're trying to get ahead of what are our options are," he said. "Maybe this is our option. Maybe it's not."
It's been two years since lawmakers adopted a new indexed formula for calculating Utah's gas tax that raised the price at the pumps by 5 cents a gallon to just under 30 cents a gallon.
The task force heard Wednesday about the Oregon pilot program, the most advanced effort to test the fees in the nation, as well as from a member of the national Mileage-Based User Fee Alliance.
The fees were pitched as a way to close the gap between demands for transportation infrastructure and declining gas tax revenues due to increased gas mileage and alternative fuels.
Privacy is a major issue with charging drivers according to road use, which can include adjusting fees according to where they drive, not just how far. Also of concern is the expense of tracking travel as well as collecting the fees.
Adrian Moore, the member of the alliance and the vice president of the Reason Foundation, told the task force during a presentation by phone that the transition will come at a cost.
"I think that's the price we pay," he said, "for moving what is currently an unsustaintable system that's on a declining path to one that will stay sustainable as long as we're driving on roads instead of in flying cars."