By The Herald Editorial Board
Washington state’s gas tax is going away. It has to, eventually, for the simple reason that fewer and fewer gallons of gas and diesel are being sold in the state, meaning that — even with the third-highest gas tax in the nation at 49.4 cents a gallon — that tax isn’t collecting enough to meet the state’s transportation needs.
Gas stations in Washington state sold an average of 1.56 million gallons of gasoline a day in 2002. Thanks to more fuel-efficient vehicles, changes in driving habits and a steadily increasing number of hybrid and electric vehicles on the road, those sales numbers dropped dramatically to an average of 340,000 gallons a day in 2020, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
And that slide will only accelerate over the next decade as the transition from fossil-fuel-powered vehicles to electric and other zero-emission vehicles continues under the state’s goal to require that an increasing number of those vehicles be sold until reaching 100 percent of all new vehicle sales by 2035.
That’s great news for breathable air and our efforts to lower the carbon emissions from motor vehicles that contribute to climate change; less so if you’re a state lawmaker trying to figure out how to pay for new road construction and maintenance, bridges, ferries, transit and other transportation needs.
“Things are only going to get worse in terms of revenue,” warned Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, during a Feb. 21 hearing before the House Transportation Committee, which he chairs. “We’ve all seen and heard comments about the costs of inflation. We’ll see it when this budget comes forward, that we’re not going to be able to fund all the projects we planned in the Connecting Washington and Move Ahead Washington transportation packages because of those increased costs.”
So, if not a gas tax, how do we pay for transportation infrastructure that keeps people and things moving?
Fey has proposed the state transition to a fee that charges motorists for each mile they travel, better known as a road usage charge or per-mile fee.
The idea isn’t new. The Washington State Transportation Commission, which advises the state Department of Transportation and lawmakers, has been studying road usage charge schemes for 10 years and late last year recommended to the Legislature that it start with a voluntary program that would charge a per-mile fee for electric and other zero-emission vehicles.
Fey’s legislation, House Bill 1832, would start modestly with a voluntary program that would charge a fee of 2.5 cents per mile for use of all public roadways in the state. Those who participate in the program would have the state’s $225 in registration fees for EVs and plug-in hybrids waived.
The goal, under the bill, would be to have a comprehensive and mandatory road usage charge program in place by 2030.
Those who have been working on the switch are eager to get started, including Sharon Nelson, a former state senator from Maury Island, who served on an advisory committee for the transportation commission for 10 years.
“It’s past time that we get this on the statute books and start implementing it in a real time way. The concept has been tested and is working in three states,” Nelson said. “There is no other concept to replace the gas tax.”
Others at the hearing either objected to the legislation or, while neither supporting nor opposing it, raised concerns. And there would be complications in the transition from the gas tax, among them, assuring that the funds raised by the per-mile fee are dedicated to transportation needs, among them road preservation and maintenance; and that programs such as the Transportation Improvement Board and county road administration board funding programs are assured ample revenues from the fee.
A road-usage charge, compared to the relative ease of the gas tax collected at the pump, will be more complicated to collect, whether users are trusted to accurately report their mileage or a device is used to record and report that mileage. Both systems were tested during a pilot program run by the transportation commission, with its findings now available to guide implementation.
(Melissa Slager, who was The Herald’s Street Smarts reporter at the time, was one of 2,000 drivers in the pilot program, and reported on these and other issues and her own experiences in 2019).
As well, some will remain uncomfortable with how mileage is tracked in individual vehicles. To protect privacy, Fey’s bill requires that per-mile tracking methods report only mileage and not general location data to state agencies or be release it to the public. That data could be made available to law enforcement under a court order, however.
Lawmakers and officials also will need to review data from the early years of the voluntary program to assure the per mile fee charge brings in an amount of revenue that meets transportation needs but is generally equivalent to what the gas tax collects.
No doubt there will be other complications to address as the switch is made, but that’s all the more reason to start now with a voluntary program so those issues become clear and work can begin to resolve them.
As of Friday — the deadline for fiscal legislation to be passed out of its committee of origin — the fate of Fey’s bill wasn’t clear; it had yet to be voted out of the transportation committee but might yet survive as budget issues are considered later in the session.
Lawmakers shouldn’t hesitate to move forward with a voluntary program that can help guide implementation toward a comprehensive and sustainable replacement of the gas tax. Inching along toward a solution, as the state has done for 10 years, delays a final solution, even as gas tax revenues continue to evaporate.
“We could do pilot programs for the next couple of decades,” Fey said. “It won’t change the underlying problem. We have to have a policy that is fair to all users of the roadway. We have to set a date to try to start implementation.”
As the saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. And — at 2.5 cents a mile for 1,000 miles — would bring in $25 for the road.
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