It’s easy, especially when sitting in traffic, to fume over why the government hasn’t done something to fix this mess or that jam.
We’re less likely to ponder just how we’d be willing to pay for new road construction and transit projects along with the maintenance of the roads, bridges, ferries, transit and more that already are in place.
Few are fond of any of the range of transportation taxes and fees we pay, including:
A state gas tax that at 49.4 cents a gallon is the second highest in the nation;
Vehicle license tabs that will likely face another Tim Eyman initiative this fall that seeks to strip the tabs of additional local and regional taxes; and
Tolls, such as those levied on I-405’s express toll lanes between Lynnwood and Bellevue, or the tolls that will be charged those using the new Highway 99 tunnel through downtown Seattle when it opens in three weeks.
So, how about a fourth option?
Before she left The Herald for other pursuits, Street Smarts columnist Melissa Slager provided a final report on her participation in a pilot study by the state, a demonstration that intends to show how the state might collect revenue by charging drivers by the mile. Slager is one of some 2,000 participants, including 200 in Snohomish County, who chose among a few options used to measure their mileage and calculate what they’d be charged for the miles they had driven.
Viewed as an eventual replacement for the state’s gas tax, it’s known by a few names, including pay-by-mile, road-usage charges, VMT for vehicle miles traveled and MBUF for mileage-based user fee.
Slager chose a recording option that had her plug a small GPS-enabled device into her SUV’s diagnostic port on the steering column. The device counted the miles driven based on whether she was on a public road in the state, driving outside the state or, as she wrote, “driving up Grandma’s long driveway,” for which no fee was charged.
Over the course of nine months, the Slager family SUV logged more than 7,800 miles and Slager was sent mock invoices for a total of $187.42, figured at about 2.4 cents a mile.
The pilot project continues through this month, with participants reporting their experiences and concerns for a report that will be forwarded to state lawmakers before the start of the Legislature’s 2020 session.
“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,” Slager wrote.
The tricky part, she said, will be in making it work.
And with any new tax there’s skepticism, specifically as to whether it would actually replace — rather than be added to — the gas tax, and how driver’s data and privacy would be protected.
Participants in the pilot had three basic options for tracking mileage, including submitting a photo of a vehicle’s odometer or reporting to a Department of Licensing office every three months; the GPS device; or a smartphone app that, like the GPS device, could determine the roads being traveled.
The biggest concern among most drivers is one of privacy. Despite the fact that most of us carry around smartphones that already can track where we’ve been, when and for how long, many still are leery of using a device that would track the roads we travel and when we’re driving.
And there’s not a great deal of confidence in the ability of those who receive that data, and use it for legitimate purposes, to safeguard it from hackers — thanks, Equifax — or elect to abuse our trust and give away the personal data outright — you. too, Facebook.
One solution would be the option, also offered now in Oregon, that relies on simple odometer reporting, though that doesn’t allow for discerning among miles driven on public roads and highways, out-of-state or private roads and parking lots, and charging accordingly.
Oregon has addressed some of the privacy concerns, including those raised by the American Civil Liberties Union, that requires the state and its vendors participating in the program to destroy all GPS data collected within 30 days.
Another way to better protect user’s location data would be to have the GPS devices in vehicles collect that data, calculate the amount owed and send only that and the vehicle’s ID tag to the state, then erase the GPS data collected, though that’s likely to increase the cost of the devices.
Eventually, Washington state — if not the federal government — will need to find a replacement for the per-gallon tax on gasoline. A 2017 report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that about 1.5 million plug-in hybrid and hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles will be sold by 2025, totaling 9 percent of light-duty vehicles sold. And gasoline-powered vehicles will continue to become more fuel efficient, with most mid-sized passenger cars seeing miles per gallon increase form 35 mpg to 53 by 2025. Hybrids are expected to improve from their current 50 mpg to more than 70 mpg by 2025.
The gas tax also is doomed by the fact that it’s not indexed to inflation. The federal gas tax — 18.4 cents per gallon for gasoline and 24.4 cents per gallon for diesel — was last increased in 1993; inflation increased 64.6 percent between 1993 and 2015. So the revenue it provides has lost significant purchasing power in the last 25 years. And neither lawmakers in the Legislature or Congress appear eager to back another gas tax increase to catch us up with inflation.
There are legitimate concerns about how the technology involved in a vehicle usage charge could be abused or hacked to reveal private data, but those concerns can be addressed.
If state lawmakers and officials see paying by mile as a fair and sustainable way to fund construction and maintenance of roads and more, they will need to make drivers more comfortable with that method than they are with the gas tax.