WA Policy Center’s Mariya Frost: Mileage tax could include variable pricing

Jan 10, 2020, 6:27 AM

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After Cascade Media released its Crosscut Elway Poll this week, Mariya Frost, transportation analyst for the Washington Policy Center, was not surprised to find that a road usage charge — a mileage tax for each driver based on miles traveled in a year — is not a popular one.

Fifty-five percent of respondents opposed a mileage tax as a replacement for the current gas tax, while just 32 percent supported it.

Based on recommendations by the Puget Sound Regional Council, Frost predicted that the road usage charge would be in addition to — not a replacement for — the gas tax, and guessed that if the question were worded to reflect that, the opposition would have been even higher.

“Imagine people’s reaction if they were asked if they would support a new mileage tax that would go into a general transportation fund — so would not be a replacement for the gas tax, but would be an entirely new way of funding transportation that gives lawmakers the freedom to fund whatever they want, without that money having to be protected for roads alone,” she said.

WA Transportation Commission says mileage tax is less regressive than gas tax

When the Washington Policy Center polled 500 people in December and asked if they would support a road usage charge in addition to a gas tax, 65 percent of respondents answered in the negative.

“This is not a popular idea; people are catching on to what this will likely be in Washington state, given our political climate,” she said.

She compared it to the toll lanes on 405, which were originally supposed to be temporary unless they could meet specific financial and speed requirements. Though they have not met the speed requirements, they have been allowed to remain as permanent fixtures.

Other transportation analysts have speculated that the road mileage tax could eventually include variable pricing — charging different rates depending on whether or not it is rush hour, as can be seen in the 520 bridge tolls.

While Washington Transportation Commission Executive Director Reema Griffith told Dori in December that variable pricing would not factor into the mileage tax, Frost countered that it could certainly be an option being considered by lawmakers. The Seattle Department of Transportation recommended to the commission to include variable pricing in the new tax.

“If a public agency or official doesn’t overtly say, ‘This cannot happen,’ or, ‘We do not want this,’ if they leave it kind of open as a possibility or alternative, generally speaking, I think that means that they do want it,” Frost said.

As for the other hottest transportation topic in the state, while the Washington Policy Center remained neutral on $30 tabs Initiative 976 before the election, Frost recommended the state government now listen to the will of the voters.

“Even if the initiative is struck down on a technicality in court, I think the Legislature would be wise to listen to the public and implement the will of the voters, as the Legislature did after the passage of [2001 $30 tabs measure] Initiative 695,” she said.

If the $30 tabs initiative is upheld, the Washington Policy Center will make recommendations to the Legislature for how to pay for necessary transportation projects on a tighter budget, such as “prioritizing maintenance and preservation of our roads, and getting projects off of their deferral list, off the pause list, that are funded exclusively by gas taxes.”

Listen to the Dori Monson Show weekday afternoons from 12-3 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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