Innovation needed to solve gas tax problem

As state lawmakers begin gathering in Olympia for Monday’s start to the 2013 legislative session, the never-ending quest for new revenue that isn’t-a-tax-increase will continue.

That should be sufficient motivation for the Legislature to consider applying the gasoline tax more fairly, but it means going down a tricky road full of potholes and warning signs.

As more and more people are turning to all-electric and highly fuel-efficient vehicles, there is a corresponding decline in gas tax revenue. And this creates a conundrum for the state Department of Transportation: how to pay for upgrading and maintaining our roadways.

Revenue from Washington’s 37.5 cents per gallon gas tax generates the largest portion of transportation funds, but only 8 cents of the revenue goes to funding repairs and maintenance, safety improvements on both highways and ferries, and congestion relief projects.

The Legislature started to address this problem in the last session with HB 2660, which imposes an annual electric vehicle fee of $100. Starting Feb. 1, owners of the Nissan Leaf, Tesla Roadsters and certain modified all-electric vehicles will pay the fee when they renew their vehicle registration.

That’s a good start, but it doesn’t address the loss of gas tax revenue as the number of vehicles getting 40, 50 and more miles per gallon increases.

Highly fuel-efficient vehicles don’t cause any less wear and tear on state roads. The need to repair and maintain roadways will remain the same, and will likely increase with population gains and the ongoing need to construct improved commercial shipping corridors to support regional employers.

Other states are considering vehicle-use fees. Such a system would apply the “gas tax” more fairly, moving it from consumption to a mileage-based user fee.

The chatter out of Oregon suggests that Legislature will confront a bill this year to impose such a per-mile tax, which raises all kinds of new environmental and privacy issues.

No matter how you look at it, the future of how to fund the repair, maintain and build new roads is a thorny issue.

We want to encourage fuel efficiency to improve air quality, reduce greenhouse gases and save our planet, not to mention the dream of reducing reliance on fossil fuels and ending our dependency on foreign oil. But we also need to maintain and improve our roadways.

There’s no easy solution, but lawmakers should view innovative methods of acquiring sufficient transportation revenue as a replacement of the gas tax, not as a new tax or as a means of increasing taxes.