In a proposal that fell on deaf ears in Sacramento last year, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission's staff is recommending legislation that would make a gas tax a "fee," and thus make it easier to prevail at the ballot box.

Only this year, transportation officials say, the idea could be more palatable as but one arrow in a quiver aimed at reducing the Bay Area's contribution to global warming.

Under legislation that went into effect in 1997, the MTC has the authority to put a gasoline "tax" before voters in the Bay Area's nine counties. But the two-thirds requirement for taxes, the proposed legislative program says, is "a hurdle that most polling data have consistently shown to be out of reach."

Recent polls conducted by the MTC staff have shown that more than half of area residents support the 10-cents-a-gallon idea if it would help fight global warming and improve conditions on local roads and freeways.

Californians now pay about 55 cents per gallon in taxes, most of that in state and federal excise taxes, levied per gallon, followed by state and local sales taxes, levied as a percentage of purchase price.

Both MTC and the Association of Bay Area Governments last week challenged area leaders to support an aggressive system to curb greenhouse gas emissions that included congestion fees and parking surcharges for driving in urban areas during peak hours to raise money and prod commuters toward public transit.


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The plan also calls for opening car pool lanes to solo drivers for a variable fee to ease congestion and raise money for more car pool lanes and better transit service.

By far the most controversial proposal was a "carbon tax" levied on gasoline to help roadways' cash-starved maintenance programs and cut back on the number of miles traveled by motorists.

"When you look at things like the federal gas tax and state tax, they're so far behind in terms of keep up with the cost, in terms of funding the kinds of improvements we need for our road network," said Orinda Mayor Amy Worth, who represents Contra Costa County municipalities on the commission.

That means it's important for the MTC to look for new funding as well as to protect existing sources of transportation funding, such as the fuel tax "spillover," normally earmarked for transit that was tapped by the governor and state Legislature this year for other programs.

The biggest hurdle to that idea may be as simple as its name. Under California's tax-control laws, any such tax would require approval of two-thirds of the electorate.

The MTC staff is recommending, in a draft legislative program to be presented to the panel's Legislative Committee on Friday, that commissioners seek state legislation "to amend our existing authority to levy a road user fee" on gasoline, requiring only a simple majority at the ballot box.

The difference is not simply semantic, the program says: "As a fee proposal, eligible expenditures would have to provide a strong nexus between the fee paid and the expenditures for which the revenues are used."

That means the money must be earmarked as outlined in the legislation, such as for repairing roadways or buying new transit vehicles.

Assemblyman Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, a former MTC member, noted that neither he nor any other legislator agreed to carry the legislation earlier this year.

"I don't want to be party to adding to the burden of working families in the Bay Area who are already in an economically tight situation," DeSaulnier said, adding that he favored other strategies, such as curbing development, to cut vehicle use.

Reach Erik Nelson at 510-208-6410 or enelson@angnewspapers.com.