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Aug. 7, 2020

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Washington closer to per-mile road usage charge

Recommendations for replacing gas tax advance to state, federal officials

By , Columbian staff reporter
Published:

Washington is one step closer to replacing the state gas tax with a new system where drivers are charged on a per-mile basis.

The Washington State Transportation Commission, meeting Tuesday in Olympia, voted to forward 16 recommendations for a road usage charge to the Washington Legislature, Gov. Jay Inslee and the Federal Highway Administration.

Washington and other states face a funding problem with more electric cars, hybrids and fuel-efficient vehicles generating less gas tax revenue. The gas tax does not automatically keep pace with inflation or rise and fall with changes in gas prices.

Forecasts predict that vehicle fuel efficiency in Washington will reach 35 miles per gallon by 2035, creating a potential 45 percent reduction in gas tax revenue.

Gas taxes are the state’s biggest transportation funding source, accounting for 39 percent of revenue. According to the transportation commission, Washington residents pay an average of $225 in gas taxes for every 12,000 miles they drive.

Washington’s gas tax is 49.4 cents per gallon. The state ranks fourth in the nation for gas taxes and fees, trailing only California, Pennsylvania and Illinois.

The 2012 Legislature directed the transportation commission to assess the potential to replace the state gas tax with a road usage charge.

That kicked off a seven-year effort that included a yearlong pilot project. About 2,000 drivers participated by driving more than 15 million miles to test a mock road usage charge of 2.4 cents per mile.

Road usage charges could be tracked in several ways, including odometer readings and GPS devices.

Jerry Litt, transportation commission chairman, said Tuesday’s decision could begin the transition toward a more sustainable system.

“This is an important first step in ensuring future funding security for Washington’s aging roads and bridges,” Litt said in a statement. “Thanks to the pilot project and years of research, we believe road usage charging is a promising and viable option for the Legislature to consider, and now is the time to begin a gradual but necessary transition away from relying on the consumption of fossil fuel to fund our roads.”

If the Legislature moves toward a road usage charge, it will proceed slowly, in part because the state has sold bonds to pay for transportation projects and needs gas tax dollars to pay off that debt.

Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, a member of the House Transportation Commission, said she thinks Washington eventually will switch to a road usage charge, but she’s not sure when.

“I am not opposed to that, but I just don’t know if we are there yet,” she said. “We will have to wait and see.”

“In some ways, it’s fairer,” she added. “Older cars generally don’t get as good mileage as newer cars do. There are some inequities built into the gas tax in terms of people’s ability to pay.”

Although Wylie isn’t sure when the state may switch, she is confident it won’t be during the 2020 Legislature, a 60-day session that begins Jan. 13.

“There is not going to be enough time in the upcoming session to make this change,” she said.

The Washington Policy Center, a self-described free market think tank, released results Tuesday from statewide polling of 500 Washington voters.

According to the center, 25 percent of respondents supported a road usage charge, 65 percent were opposed, and 9 percent didn’t know.

Washington is feeling additional pressure to overhaul its transportation funding system after voters last month approved Initiative 976, which set car tabs at $30 and killed the ability of cities and counties to tack on additional charges without voter approval.

Tim Eyman, the initiative king who promoted I-976, testified before the transportation commission Tuesday to voice his “visceral opposition” to a per-mile charge.

“I think it is incredibly insulting, I think it’s incredibly arrogant,” he said. “It really would be a very helpful thing if you start listening instead of ruling.”

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