Sunday, September 27, 2020
Sept. 27, 2020

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In Our View: Prepare for slow phase-in of road usage fee

The Columbian

Seven years after the Legislature instructed state officials to consider alternatives to the gas tax, Washington has taken only incremental steps in that direction.

Recommendations from the Washington State Transportation Commission, approved last week to be sent to lawmakers, indicate that progress will remain slow. As the state considers the impact of various options for replacing the gas tax, questions and concerns remain impenetrable.

The lesson? Washington should prepare for a slow phase-in as it transforms how it funds road construction and maintenance, even if the issue seems urgent.

With new vehicles getting ever-improving gas mileage and with the percentage of electric cars and hybrids continuing to increase, revenue from the gas tax is losing its purchasing power. Washington’s gas tax is 49.4 cents per gallon, the fourth-highest in the nation. That money accounts for 39 percent of the state’s transportation funding.

The most obvious alternative is a tax on miles driven rather than on gas purchased. That would ensure that people who have electric cars also are paying to maintain the roads they use, and it could be calibrated to eventually replace the gas tax at similar levels. The state last year conducted a pilot program including 2,000 volunteers who combined to drive more than 15 million miles while paying mileage taxes rather than a gas tax.

Implementing a mileage tax on a large scale, however, carries its own problems. One of the primary ones is how the mileage would be tracked, possibly through odometer readings or GPS tracking. GPS could provide the most accurate readings, and it would allow drivers to avoid paying Washington for out-of-state mileage — as they do now when filling up in another state.

But there are legitimate privacy concerns involved with GPS tracking that would allow government officials to know when and where a car was driven. Given the anticipated opposition to GPS monitoring — and the questionable legality — lawmakers should regard mandatory tracking as a non-starter. A voluntary program that allows motorists to replace their gas taxes with a GPS-monitored mileage tax would be more realistic.

That, however, would further complicate the issue when simplicity is necessary to generate public buy-in on any new program. Lawmakers also must ensure that a mileage tax will gradually replace the gas tax rather than become an add-on. With last month’s approval of Initiative 976, statewide voters made clear that they are eager to cut funding for transportation projects rather than add to it.

Questions about that funding also play a role in any transition from the gas tax. At last week’s transportation commission hearing, sharply differing views were heard about whether money from a mileage tax should be limited to roads and not used for transit projects. The reality is that mass transit is not only necessary to mitigate congestion in the state’s major cities, it is a moral imperative to combat climate change.

As King County Council member Claudia Balducci said about restricting mileage taxes to highway construction: “It’s fundamentally backward-looking. You could pour road money on downtown Bellevue and it just wouldn’t do any good. Same for downtown Seattle. The funding that the state makes available should be flexible.”

That funding, however, remains in limbo despite years of study and discussion. It is unlikely lawmakers will come to any agreements during next year’s short legislative session, but that does not mean the situation will be any less urgent.