CHOKEPOINTS

Washington’s road usage tax ends its testing phase

Feb 12, 2019, 10:13 AM
tax, seattle traffic, low carbon fuel standard...
(File, Associated Press)
(File, Associated Press)

The 2,000 guinea pigs who signed-up to test Washington’s road usage tax — to replace the gas tax — have finished their driving. Now it’s time to look at the data.

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Those drivers logged more than 16 million miles over the last year. They tested four ways to track their miles, from low-tech (using their odometers) to high-tech (using a plug-in GPS device).

The Washington State Transportation Commission guided the testing. Executive Director Reema Griffith said they had enough drivers, across all sectors, to get really good data. There were plenty of rural area drivers too, so this wasn’t just a city experiment.

“We got a good sample,” Griffith said. “It’s pretty reflective of the make-up of our state and a lot of different types of cars.”

“We did all sorts of different kinds of exercises, if you will, thanks to the drivers who went out of state, went off-road, people drove on their ranches, drove in parking lots and on the regular roads as well,” she said.

The key to a road usage charge, or a pay-by-mile system, is you only want to charge drivers for miles driven inside the state. The drivers did a good job on that challenge. Griffith said they also had drivers from neighboring states take-part to see how a uniform system across borders might work.

“We also did a test with drivers up in British Columbia, Idaho, and from Oregon,” she said. “We’ve learned a lot of stuff that’s not too apparent at the moment, but as we start working through all the data and the input we got a lot of interesting findings will be coming forth later this year.”

All the data will be collected and analyzed before a final report is created late this year. It will be delivered to the Legislature and the governor for consideration.

Drivers were charged just over $0.02 for every mile that they drove, compared to the current, nearly $0.50 per gallon gas tax. The goal is to find a more sustainable funding source for the roads than the gas tax, which many experts believe will no longer be able to properly fund Washington’s roads in about 15 years. Modern cars are so fuel efficient that the gas tax just doesn’t go as far as it used to. This road usage charge would eventually replace the gas tax, if implemented.

There are still privacy issues to be hashed-out when considering tracking mileage, especially with a GPS device considering how much data it can actually collect. The state said it would only track your miles and where they were, but opponents worry data, such as the speed you’re driving, could eventually be used to hand-out tickets or track other violations.

There are also plans for several western states, including Washington, to create a system that would track miles across borders, with the tax going to the state where the miles are driven.

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Washington’s road usage tax ends its testing phase