Nine months as a guinea pig for pay-by-the-mile tax study

Washington is among the states giving “road usage charges” a look. Backers say it’s fairer than gas tax.

The state’s mileage tax road test will soon wind down.

I’m one of about 2,000 drivers, including 200 from Snohomish County, who have been testing the pay-per-mile tax idea.

In nine months, I logged more than 7,800 miles on our family SUV and shelled out an estimated $187.42 in state gas taxes, according to my mock invoices. That amounted to more than I would pay under the simulated 2.4 cents-per-mile plan. So my account so far has a credit of a little over $5. (If it were real money, I could score a cup of fancy coffee at Narrative.)

Washington is among several states giving “road usage charges” a look. Proponents believe a mileage tax could provide a more stable and equitable “user pays” source of roads funding than a gas tax as vehicles become more fuel efficient or switch to alternative fuels.

The tricky part is how to make it work.

“We’re hopeful that Washington state will inform those discussions,” said Reema Griffith, executive director of the Washington State Transportation Commission. Our state’s effort “is one of the per-capita biggest pilot projects so far, so there’s a lot of interest in what we’ve learned.”

Privacy is paramount

The pilot project continues through January, and a final survey of drivers is yet to come. But certain themes already emerge.

Protection of private information and driving data is a hot topic, Griffith said.

An earlier survey by 1,600 participants listed privacy as a top principle for any mileage tax, along with simplicity and transparency, she said. Tellingly, more than half of participants chose options without GPS.

Tracking your vehicle’s location is key if you make frequent border crossings. My mock invoices, for example, include several charges at 1.7 cents per mile when we traveled in Oregon, and log charge-free miles in British Columbia.

Making it easy to pay the taxes also is key, which includes giving folks tech-based and no-tech options.

Washington is the first to test a smartphone app. I did not test this method. (As a quasi-Luddite — OK, cheapskate — I’m among the 11 percent of Snohomish County folks who don’t have a smartphone, according to a Puget Sound Regional Council survey.) Griffith said there are lots of wrinkles to iron out, but an app could provide a balanced approach: offering people more privacy, with an option to toggle GPS on to avoid higher charges.

How to do that without creating a loophole for scofflaws is a question for another day.

Lots of questions for another day

There are wrinkles with other approaches too, though.

I chose the easiest method for tracking miles: a plug-in device that hooks up to my vehicle’s diagnostics system.

By enabling GPS, the plug-in device could tell when I was on Broadway headed to work (public road, regular charge), on I-5 heading into Portland (Oregon road, Oregon charge), or rolling up Grandma’s long driveway (private road, no charge).

But only to a point.

Short trips, up to about 2 miles, weren’t long enough for the device to register my location. Instead those were logged in a separate category, but still charged 2.4 cents per mile. That meant higher charges for short trips in Oregon and British Columbia — where the system already had a harder time tracking my vehicle.

It added up to pennies. But over the long term, those pennies pile up.

The system also is supposed to catch scofflaws who remove the devices from their vehicles. That didn’t work in at least one case.

Rob Carlile, of Darrington, had to have car repairs. The shop removed the device to do their work. Everyone forgot to put the device back. A week went by, including days Carlile was driving. But he never heard from anyone asking about the missing data.

Such wrinkles are part of a pilot project. But when the topic concerns a tax, wrinkles are more concerning.

It’s all about money

Carlile’s experience is a testament to how easy it’s been to forget we were ever participating in a simulation that’s hunting for the best method of taxing us for roads.

“The only time I ever thought about it was when they sent me an email to say I had an invoice,” Carlile said.

Carlile works at two different hospitals, neither of them close. In a six-month sample, his invoices showed he traveled an average of more than 2,000 miles per month. His vehicle is relatively fuel-efficient, so he “owed” an average of $6.80 per month on top of what he already paid in gas taxes to meet the simulation’s standard of 2.4 cents per mile driven.

That seems reasonable, he said.

Like many others, Carlile’s questions have more to do with worries a mileage tax would just become an added tax, despite state leaders’ assurances. The most recent debate over a carbon tax only feeds those worries.

Our state has the second-highest gas tax in the nation, at 67.8 cents, with 49.4 cents of that going to state road coffers.

“The people paying gas tax are already paying through the nose,” Carlile said. “But at the same time, I’d like to see the Leafs and the Bolts and Priuses pay their fair share too. How do we get that to happen without making some changes?”

What’s next?

After the test-drive phase of the pilot project ends Jan. 31, steering committee members will mull survey responses and focus group comments, and analyze the project’s border tests, including real-money tests with Oregon.

They’ll also tackle sticky policy issues: The state’s 18th amendment protecting gas tax revenue for roads projects. Privacy protection. The role of the private sector. And how a transition to a new tax system might unfold (spoiler alert: very, very slowly).

The commission will issue its final report to the Legislature for the January 2020 session.

A newsletter giving updates about the pilot project’s progress will continue through 2019. Sign up on the website, which will also be kept updated, at waroadusagecharge.org.

Melissa Slager’s last day at The Herald was Dec. 21, after more than four years as the Street Smarts reporter. Her last few columns will run in the coming weeks.

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