Politics & Government

Pay-by-mile could be tested on Washington roads

Traffic backs up on Interstate 5 through Bellingham after a traffic accident on Oct. 31, 2008.
Traffic backs up on Interstate 5 through Bellingham after a traffic accident on Oct. 31, 2008. The Bellingham Herald

A per-mile charge might be vetted by volunteer drivers up and down the West Coast, with the goal of eventually replacing the gas tax.

Oregon has carried out two tests using volunteer drivers — the most recent one with 21 Washingtonians among its 88 participants — and is getting ready for a third. California in September approved its own test.

Now Washington’s Transportation Commission wants to run its own yearlong test of a road usage charge, voting unanimously Tuesday to ask the Legislature for permission and funding.

Formerly climbing gas-tax proceeds have plateaued and are expected to head downward. An alternative based on miles traveled would be a more fair, lucrative and dependable source of money, state consultants have concluded after more than two years of study at costs approaching $2 million.

Prices would have to be worked out, but consultants have been working on assumptions of a 1.9 cents-a-mile charge — to raise what the state’s gas tax of 371/2 cents per gallon does now. Commercial trucks and other very heavy vehicles would not be affected.

“There’s every reason why the public would be motivated to want to drive cleaner vehicles that have less emissions but also better gas mileage and also maybe get off oil in general from a national security standpoint,” said Reema Griffith, executive director of the Transportation Commission, but those goals also “conflict with our needs, because we still need money to maintain our infrastructure.”

The commission wants to offer drivers four different ways to pay:

• A flat fee to drive unlimited miles over a time period.



• A charge based on an odometer reading.



• A charge based on miles tallied by a reporting device in the vehicle.



• A charge based on miles tallied by an application on a smartphone.



“There’s going to be consumer choice,” Griffith said.

The advantage of a device or app would be its ability to ignore miles driven out of state or on private land. Some might see it as invasive, but consultant Jack Opiola told the commission it would only track the number of miles on each category of road.

“It does not keep track of where you are precisely in time,” he said.

Consultants suggested a full road-usage charge could be phased in as drivers receive their annual tabs or as they buy cars.

Even with such a charge fully in place, consultants say drivers would keep paying taxes at the pump, because the state has to pay off money borrowed against gas-tax revenues and so residents of other states don’t drive for free on Washington roads. But the state would subtract drivers’ estimated gas-tax bill from what they owe for miles.

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