CHOKEPOINTS

Will WA Legislature move towards pay-by-mile system?

Jan 10, 2023, 5:03 AM

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Washington State Capitol Building (KIRO 7)

(KIRO 7)

Will this be the year the Washington Legislature starts the long walk away from the gas tax and toward a pay-by-mile system?

The Road Usage Charge (RUC), or pay-by-mile system, has been on the drawing board for a decade now. At its core, the goal is to find a more stable funding source to pay for our roads since the gas tax doesn’t go as far as it used to. Not because the gas tax isn’t high. It is. But our cars are getting better fuel mileage, and we have to fuel up less often.

The Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC) has run pilot programs and feasibility studies, and it has, once again, put a bunch of recommendations together for the legislature to consider.

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“The revenue decline is real,” RUC steering committee member Sharon Nelson told the WSTC last month. “It’s a real fact that the gas tax is no longer adequate to support how we fund highways, bridges, and maintenance in this state. We’ve got to socialize these truths to our public.”

The first recommendation is to finally pass something and get the state on the path to the Road Usage Charge.

“I think it is really time to get on with this,” Nelson told the committee. “I think we need to start making clear messaging to the Washington driving public that this is the future. To do that, I think, there’s nothing like passing legislation.”

The commission is recommending that a Road Usage Charge program begins in 2025 on a voluntary basis and then becomes required in 2027 for any new car, model year 2028 or later.

Owners would pay 2.5 cents per mile instead of the gas tax. The method of tracking would be an odometer read.

“Once it’s operational, it will be a big shock to people,” Nelson said. “Having a phased approach, where adjustments can be made as we move through time, is very important to keep as a feature of any legislation.”

The state would continue working on more efficient ways to capture miles driven, using GPS or other technology. And to get the state’s drivers ready for this, the commission believes everyone should be giving their cars odometer reading when renewing their tabs, whether they are using the RUC or not.

Another key recommendation is that the legislature dedicates any money generated from a Road Usage Charge to the roads. There is great concern that the money could be diverted since an RUC is not specifically mentioned in the state Constitution. A Republican senator is asking that this be put to voters to require that RUC money goes to roads.

And there are privacy concerns that have yet to be truly addressed. Some people believe that asking for a simple odometer is a violation of privacy, but most of the more significant concerns center on the developing technology, what kind of data would be collected, and how it would be stored.

The Road Usage Charge only had one hearing last session. It has yet to be filed as a bill this session.

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One of the other interesting nuances in all of this is that the Democrats pushed through a massive $17-billion transportation package last year that relies on a considerable increase in the gas tax. The exact increase is of great debate because it comes from new carbon fees. Some say it will be pennies. Others say it could be up to a dollar increase per gallon.

What incentive would there be to move to a Road Usage Charge if it would gut the money the legislature and governor have earmarked for the programs promised under that budget?

It doesn’t make sense to keep increasing the gas tax if the goal is to replace it.

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Will WA Legislature move towards pay-by-mile system?