By The Herald Editorial Board
Want to help put an end to the state’s gasoline tax, the second highest in the nation?
Yes, there’s a catch. You’d be helping the state Transportation Commission test a replacement for the gas tax: a road usage charge that would levy a fee for every mile you drive.
The commission is looking for about 2,000 volunteers willing to test drive different ways of recording the number of miles driven and, thus, the fee that vehicle owners would pay instead of a gas tax. During the pilot project mileage will only be recorded; volunteers won’t be charged for miles driven, and they’ll pay the gas tax like everybody else.
But why replace the gas tax, especially after the state Legislature went through all the trouble in 2015 to adopt a two-step increase that raised the per gallon tax to 49.4 cents, second only to Pennsylvania’s 59.4 cents a gallon? (The federal government tacks on another 18.4 cents a gallon.)
As a method of raising revenue to build and maintain roads and other transportation infrastructure — and pay the debt service on previous construction bonds — the gas tax isn’t very productive and is becoming less so. Set at a fixed rate, the tax collects the same revenue per gallon sold, regardless of the price of gas. And increasing fuel efficiency and the growing number of hybrids and electric vehicles on the road also means the revenue collected through the gas tax is declining per mile driven.
The Transportation Commission estimates that by 2035 the average fuel efficiency of vehicles will increase to 35 miles per gallon, a significant increase from the current 20.5 miles per gallon, resulting in a drop of up to 50 percent less revenue from the gas tax. And the range of fuel efficiency of vehicles now on the road means that Teslas and other all-electrics pay nothing for roads (except for a $150 registration fee) while gas-guzzling SUVs pay a greater share.
The volunteers would test three methods of recording mileage: a smartphone app that would use GPS; a module that would plug into a vehicle’s electronics; and a low-tech method where drivers would report odometer readings, according to a report in The (Tacoma) News Tribune.
While the pilot program’s “beta” testers won’t be charged per mile, they could judge how the switch might affect their pocketbook. The Transportation Commission is considering 2.4 cents per mile as a starting point for the usage charge; that would be close to what the average driver in a vehicle getting 20.5 miles per gallon pays in gas tax.
Washington, along with six other states including Oregon and California that are also considering a per-mile fee, received a $3.8 million Federal Highway Administration grant to launch the pilot program and consider the options. Oregon, and its OReGO program, in 2015 launched a 1.5-cent-per-mile fee for the 5,000 drivers testing its plug-in device. Drivers are getting a gas tax credit in return.
Privacy, specifically the thought that the state government might be tracking how many miles people drive — or even where they travel — is a potential roadblock to the switch. Reema Griffith, the Transportation Commission’s executive director told the Tribune that is why the commission is looking at different methods of collecting the data.
“The notion of government monitoring your numbers of miles is troubling to a lot of people,” Griffith told the Tribune. “For this to move forward, we’ve got to recognize this is not a one-size-fits-all system.”
There are some environmental benefits to the gas tax. It does provide an incentive to those who drive more fuel-efficient vehicles, particularly all-electric cars. In effect, it’s the oldest carbon tax around.
But unless the Legislature is prepared to keep jacking up the gas tax and motorists are prepared to pay more per gallon, the state needs to consider a different source of revenue. The per-mile usage charge deserves a road test.
Those interested in participating in the Transportation Commission’s road usage charge program and learning more about it can go to www.waroadusagecharge.org.