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News / Northwest

Inslee vetoes collection of Washington drivers’ odometer readings

By David Kroman, The Seattle Times
Published: May 16, 2023, 3:51pm

SEATTLE — Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed a bill Monday that would have required the state to ask drivers to volunteer their odometer readings, a precursor to a long-discussed and still theoretical tax on miles traveled that could replace Washington’s tax on gasoline.

Under the bill, drivers would not have been required to provide their readings to the Department of Licensing. Rather, it was intended as a data gathering exercise with the goal of “gaining more accurate information on vehicle miles traveled in the state” in preparation for the possible tax, often called a road-use charge.

Policymakers have eyed the charge for years amid fears the gasoline tax — the state’s primary source of transportation funding — could start losing its value as vehicles become more efficient or go electric.

Despite its voluntary nature, Inslee took issue with House Bill 1736, which was sponsored and approved by fellow Democrats, because it “presupposes a future per-mile program as an alternative transportation funding mechanism.” In his letter to lawmakers explaining the veto, Inslee said the Legislature should consider “alternative funding sources for transportation” in addition to the road-use charge. Only after more options are examined should the Legislature move to collecting odometer readings.

Inslee, who is not seeking a fourth term and will vacate his office at the end of 2024, did not specify alternatives to the gasoline tax he favored, if any.

Chair of the House Transportation committee, Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, said he was surprised and disappointed by the veto.

“It seemed to be helpful information at a minimal cost,” he said.

Still, it’s not a “fatal blow” to a road-use charge, he said, and the Legislature would keep talking with Inslee’s office to understand his concerns.

The bill was not supported by Republicans and Fey said he wouldn’t seek an override of Inslee’s veto.

A possible tax on miles driven has been under discussion in Washington for decades, but has caught a bit more wind in its sails as lawmakers fear declines in revenue from the state’s 49-cent per-gallon gas tax.

Before this year’s legislative session, the state Transportation Commission recommended rolling out a tax of 2.5 cents per mile by 2028.

Drivers could agree to having their vehicles tracked by a GPS or have their odometers manually inspected.

Dogging the proposed program are fears about privacy and cost and complexity of implementation. The gasoline tax is nearly frictionless in its implementation and all but impossible to cheat.

Washington has signed on to California’s emission standards, meaning the state is obligated to phase out sales of new gasoline-powered cars by 2035. The state has set an earlier goal than that of 2030.

Electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicle registrations have more than doubled in Washington, to about 124,000, since the beginning of 2020, according to the Department of Licensing. They make up about 1.5 percent of the state’s total registered vehicles.

Projections show that gasoline use, which dipped during the pandemic, will remain largely flat and even increase slightly by 2033. However, the most recent projections for use and revenue are roughly 4 percent lower than what the state forecast in November 2022.