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Just how extreme is WSDOT’s mileage tax pilot program?

(File, Associated Press)

Washington state is studying whether it should replace its gas tax with a pay-per-mile charge. Is there reason to be concerned about the program?

Reema Griffith, the executive director of the Washington State Transportation Commission, joined Todd Herman on 770 KTTH AM to discuss the pilot program, which would help fund the construction and repair of roads and bridges.

The plan to turn every road into a toll road

But if the gas tax has been working, why is the commission looking for a change?

“Largely because cars are becoming more fuel-efficient, we’ve got a problem,” Griffith said. “People are just consuming less gas. A gas tax is a consumption-based tax. So, let’s just say 30 years ago, when cars were getting about the same MPG, we didn’t have alternative fuels on the market, everybody was paying in to take care of our infrastructure.

“Well, now we’ve got a reality today that we’ve got hydrogen fuel cell coming out on the market, we’ve got EVs, we’ve got hybrids, (and) we’ve got other varieties of fuels. And so people have choices, which is great for the pocketbook, it’s great for the environment – not great news for revenue for the infrastructure that’s already falling woefully behind in terms of our needs.”

Under WSDOT’s pilot program, drivers would pay per mile traveled, rather than per gallon used. In theory, it would make the tax more equitable and ensure that drivers who use the roads frequently while in electric or fuel-efficient cars pay their fair share.

Approximately 2,000 Washington drivers will enroll in the program and will test one of four ways to track miles: purchasing a mileage permit, which would allow a driver unlimited miles in a certain timeframe; reporting quarterly odometer readings; using a “plug and play” GPS or non-GPS options; or, using a smartphone app.

Griffith said the commission has looked into raising the gas tax but said it would not be a sustainable approach.

Herman is deeply concerned about a per-mile charge for a number of reasons. Namely, he questions where the money is being spent, how much drivers will actually be charged, and whether the program itself is excessive, unnecessary and invasive.

“We can meter any of the cars that are coming out,” Herman said. “There’s no reason that we need the per-mile charge. The reason that the per-mile charge is being considered is because Washington state wants to use extortion pricing to make me stop driving my car.

“Right now it costs you one percent of the sale to collect our gas tax. If you were to do a mileage tax, it would cost you between five and 13 percent.

“I’m sorry, there’s no credibility on the side of transportation in Washington state at all,” Herman said, citing increased car tab fees and costs for people living miles away from infrastructure their taxes support.

Griffith said the commission is not denying the fact that the mileage tax would cost more.

“One of the things I wanted to get across to you, I want you to know something and this is vital for people in government to know: there’s a line, and you guys are nearing it, where people are going to stop following diktats,” Herman said.

‘How will this impact rural drivers?’

Griffith did take time to answer a few listener questions about the per-mile tax:

“I’m from Tenaska, WA and we grow food and I’m 60 miles from the store one-way, and this impacts rural America really hard.”

Griffith: “It’s going to impact all drivers depending on the kind of car you drive. The rate is going to be flat, but the impact to your personal cost is going to be driven by the kind of car you drive and your MPG. The average MPG in Washington is 20 miles-per-gallon, the equivalent today in taxes that driver’s paying is 2.4 cents a mile, that’s the rate we’ll use for the test. If you have a car that gets 18 or 15 miles per gallon, you could be paying as much as five or six cents a mile today, right now, under the gas tax. If I’m lucky enough to drive a hybrid or electric … I may be only paying one or two cents a mile.”

“What are you going to do about the lack of incentive for people to buy the electric cars and what are you going to do to prevent Washington from trying to pass their own additional subsidy for people to buy electric cars?”

Griffith: “The incentive for people to buy those cars doesn’t go away because the fact is those cars are still fueling up way less … so their total cost on a monthly basis is still a least $100 a month less than a guy driving a pickup truck. So they don’t lose that incentive, we’re just talking about the tax portion and everyone paying their fair share to use the roads.”

Listen to the entire conversation, including Griffith’s answers to listener questions, here.

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