Politics & Government

Should you be taxed more for driving more?

Evening rush-hour traffic on northbound Interstate 5 rolls through Olympia, Washington on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016. State officials plan to test a program that would charge fees based on the number of miles a vehicle is driven each year, not how much gas is purchased.
Evening rush-hour traffic on northbound Interstate 5 rolls through Olympia, Washington on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016. State officials plan to test a program that would charge fees based on the number of miles a vehicle is driven each year, not how much gas is purchased. toverman@theolympian.com

As more drivers opt for hybrids, electric or just plain highly fuel-efficient cars, the more concerned state officials become.

While the number of cars on the road will continue to grow, gasoline consumption – along with the gas tax that pays for those roads – won’t keep pace.

State transportation officials project a 45 percent decline in gas tax revenue by 2035, and that’s got them scrambling to find an alternative way to pay for roads.

One of the ideas being considered would see fees based on the number of miles a vehicle is driven each year. Someone who contributes little to the wear and tear of roads would pay less than a driver who racks up the miles.

Everyone uses the road and everyone should pay the same for the road. … It’s become inherently out of whack.

Reema Griffith, executive director of the state’s Transportation Commission

The concept will be tested this fall when 2,000 motorists across the state will participate in a pilot project testing the road usage charge. Under the project, participants would be assessed about 2.4 cents per mile, or $240 for 10,000 miles. They won’t actually pay, but the theoretical fees they would generate could show whether such a system is workable.

“It’s all about paying for the road,” said Reema Griffith, executive director of the state’s Transportation Commission. “Everyone uses the road and everyone should pay the same for the road. … It’s become inherently out of whack.”

Concerns about cost

Whether a mile-based fee system would be widely accepted is questionable.

Hazel Arvizu, who co-owns A-1 Cab in Yakima with four vehicles averaging about 4,000 miles a month each, doesn’t like the idea.

“You’re looking at 16,000 miles a month; that would put us out of business,” she said.

Arvizu isn’t the only one who is skeptical.

State Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Curtis King, R-Yakima, isn’t sure a road usage fee is the right route to take.

He worries about the expenses of administering such a program and the difficulty in factoring mileage with vehicles entering and leaving the state.

“I think we need to look at other alternatives,” he said. “We haven’t delved into what those other alternatives would be yet, but we have to look at how we’re going to pay for our roads and so forth.”

Only a test

Griffith notes that the pilot program would merely be a test to assess how to best implement such a charge here, and how motorists would be affected.

Those who participate wouldn’t be charged for the miles they drive but would receive artificial bills giving them an idea of how a road usage charge would impact them.

So far, the state has about 600 people interested in participating in the test, and it hopes to have more than 2,000 by spring, she said.

State officials want volunteers from across the state to reflect urban and rural areas and different income levels.

“Definitely we want people from the Yakima area, I can tell you that,” she said. “It’s very important that we have a balance across the state.”

There are several different ways the state could implement such a charge and each will be assessed during the pilot project.

There will be options of prepaying for a block of miles per month, similar to a prepaid cellphone.

Another option would be establishing a limit of miles, and paying monthly after the miles have been driven. Motorists would receive either email or text notifications alerting them if they are close to their limit before the billing cycle ends.

Two other test options involve using the Global Positioning System to track mileage and report it to the state. One would require a device to be installed in a vehicle while the other would use a smartphone app to calculate mileage via GPS.

Methods using GPS would only charge motorists for miles they travel on public roads, not private or out of state, Griffith said.

Leveling the paying field

If the state decides to implement a road usage charge, it wouldn’t mean an end to the gas tax.

There are 30-year bonds in place for road projects that the gas tax is paying for, Griffith said.

Washington residents already pay the second-highest state gas tax in the nation at 49.4 cents per gallon, second only to Pennsylvania’s 50.3 cents per gallon. Plus there’s the federal gas tax of 18 cents per gallon.

There have been several gas tax increases over the years, and King isn’t excited about further burdening taxpayers.

“We’ve already raised everybody’s gas tax in 2015 and in 2016,” King said. “I’m not willing to say, ‘Now we’re going to raise your tax even more.’ I think there are some things that have to be looked at and addressed.”

The average vehicle in the state gets about 20 miles to a gallon, and that’s the formula the state plans to use.

But a road usage fee would level the cost of roads equally by not allowing those who use less or no fossil fuel to avoid paying, Griffith said.

The average vehicle in the state gets about 20 miles to a gallon, and that’s the formula the state plans to use. The methodology breaks down to 2.4 cents a mile, she said.

Those driving vehicles with poor fuel economy would be in line for a refund while those driving ones with high fuel economy or using an alternative power source may not, Griffith said.

“Everyone is going to pay the same no matter what you drive,” she said. “That will break down to 2.4 cents a mile, which is reflective of what the average car today uses in consumption based on 20 miles per gallon.”

King promises that the year-long test won’t result in any quick implementation.

“We’re a long way from implementing a road usage charge,” King said. “Just because we’re doing a road usage fee test project doesn’t mean it’s going to be implemented in 2018.”

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