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In Our View: Pump primed for alternative to state gas tax

The Columbian
Published: July 24, 2019, 6:03am

Washington needs to come up with an alternative to its gas tax.

That is the easy part; with more fuel-efficient vehicles and an increase in electric and hybrid cars, the state’s gas tax is providing less and less revenue for building and maintaining roads. The difficulty comes in trying to devise a proposal to phase out the current tax. That will be the task facing the Washington Transportation Commission when it votes in December for a plan to send to next year’s Legislature.

Washington’s gas tax is 49.5 cents per gallon, the third-highest in the nation. Added to the federal tax of 18.4 cents per gallon, Washington motorists are paying nearly 68 cents for each gallon they pump into their vehicles. The federal gas tax has been unchanged since 1993.

Washington’s tax is high in part because lawmakers have few gadgets in their tool box for raising revenue. With the state eschewing an income tax and a capital gains tax, other taxes are likely to be higher than average; roads do not pay for themselves.

But with the purchasing power of the gas tax gently decreasing, changes are needed. The state undertook a pilot project over the past year to assess a pay-per-mile tax, with 2,000 volunteers paying for their time on the road rather than their time at the pump. Results will be compiled and presented to the transportation commission before the commission sends a proposal to the Legislature.

There are concerns about a pay-per-mile system. One of them is the method for recording mileage without unduly invading privacy. Many people are understandably leery about using a GPS device that tracks their location. Other issues: Paying for miles driven could inequitably hit residents in rural areas or low-income people who live far from work because of housing costs; and out-of-state driving could result in being taxed twice.

On top of that, implementing a pay-per-mile system would present some problems. State Sen. Rebecca Saldana, D-Seattle and vice chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said that such a format would have to be phased in over 10 to 25 years. This is because the state has issued bonds to pay for transportation projects and those bonds would have to be paid off through gas-tax revenue before the tax could be eliminated.

The need for taxes to pay for transportation improvements is clear. The Washington State Department of Transportation project list includes a long roster of efforts in Clark County to enhance the movement of people and freight, ranging from ramp projects along Interstate 5 and Interstate 205 to work on state highways 14, 500, 502 and 503. Transportation projects are essential for ensuring a successful economy in a state that has seen rapid population increase.

The important part will be seamlessly adjusting to a new method of paying for those projects as the gas tax becomes increasingly obsolete. In recent years, Congress has provided matching funds to help states study alternatives to the tax; whether or not a mileage tax is the best solution remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Congress also should explore alternatives to the federal gas tax. Lawmakers’ inattention to the stagnant tax is one cause of the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, and the issue must be addressed.

Nobody likes paying taxes, and many people are skeptical of changes to a system that has been in place for a century. But we are even more skeptical of a system that increasingly has us waiting for relief from growing congestion.

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