CHOKEPOINTS

Pay per mile gains steam in the legislative background in Olympia

Feb 11, 2021, 6:23 AM
pay per mile, mileage tax...
(AP)
(AP)

We’ve talked a lot about the state Legislature wanting to raise the gas tax to fund transportation, but behind the scenes, plans to transition away from the gas tax to a pay-per-mile plan are still moving forward.

Still plenty of questions as state mulls replacement for gas tax

It does seem odd that the Legislature wants to move away from fossil fuels, yet they continue to want you to use them to pay for road maintenance and construction projects. That interesting juxtaposition came up during the latest legislative discussion of the pay-per-mile system, known as a road usage charge.

The RUC has been studied in Washington for nine years, including a year-long pilot program. The goal is to have drivers pay for the miles they drive, not the amount of fuel they buy. The RUC would eventually replace the gas tax.

Speaking to the House Transportation Committee this week, the Washington Transportation Commission’s Executive Director Reema Griffith said the road usage charge can raise the necessary money while meeting environmental goals.

“RUC can provide reliable long-term funding, and it can advance fairness by charging drivers for their actual road use, rather than for the amount of fuel that their vehicle happens to consume,” she testified.

The statewide average for Washington cars is just over 20 miles a gallon. Griffith said the gas tax equals 2.4 cents per mile, which is the same price pay-per-mile would charge.

“If you are driving a car that is below that average mpg, you could be paying as much as four to five cents a mile today for the use of the roads,” Griffith said. “If you happen to be driving a car that gets above the 20.5 average mpg, you could be paying as little as a penny a mile. We see a big swing in terms of equity and how much each driver is paying for the roads today.”

So, it levels the playing field.

The Transportation Commission is recommending that the Legislature adopt the transition to a road usage charge this year, and then start the program with the state vehicle fleet in 2023 or 2024. The goal would be for the Legislature to move everyone to a road usage charge in 2030. Coincidentally, that’s the same year another bill would require all new car sales to be electric.

There is still a lot to figure out before the state moves to a road usage charge entirely. The state still has to have the gas tax after 2030 to pay back bonds, so the gas tax wouldn’t go away instantly. There would be no flipping of a switch.

There is also a very real concern over privacy. About half the drivers that participated in the pilot project did not want to have a GPS tracker in their car to calculate their mileage. Some drivers were concerned about the amount of data that would be collected.

State representative Dan Griffey had his identity stolen and used in the Employment Security Department benefits scam last year, and he didn’t want to be victimized again with another data breach.

Washington’s road usage charge pilot is over — what now?

“Can you assure that giving this online personality and persona that we all have now, that we’re going to be secure from somebody stealing our identity when we do these things?” he asked.

Drivers would have the choice of how the road usage charge would be collected, from the low-tech reading of the odometer to a high-tech full GPS tracking system.

“You certainly could select one of the manual options, the odometer reading being one of them, that doesn’t involve any technology, that doesn’t involve you going online, and it can be as manual as you like it,” Griffith said.

The commission is also recommending that the Legislature pass stricter privacy laws to deal with this change.

The calculations per mile also may have to change, considering that the Legislature is almost assuredly going to pass a gas tax increase and some form of carbon charge this session. The range of gas tax increases per gallon ranges from over six cents to more than 33 cents, and that figure does not include how much it could go up with the low fuel standard being proposed.

So, get used to the idea: Paying per mile instead of per gallon is coming.

Check out more of Chris’ Chokepoints.

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Pay per mile gains steam in the legislative background in Olympia