A universal topic that prompts communal automotive grumbling is Washington state’s gasoline tax; at 49.4 cents per gallon, it’s one of the highest in the country.
In 2015, a phased-in bump-up of 11.9 cents per gallon raised the tax to its current level, with legislative supporters arguing the increase was needed for essential projects such as the Interstate 90 expansion over Snoqualmie Pass, highways that improve access to Puget Sound ports, and long-deferred maintenance of roads and bridges.
But state Department of Transportation officials have fretted for a number of years that the gas tax’s impact is eroding. Vehicles are getting more fuel-efficient, the number of electric and hybrid cars is rising, and people overall are less inclined to drive as much as in past decades. The DOT estimates a 45 percent decline in gas tax revenue by 2035. So the state wants a few more good drivers – yes, we know that there are good ones out there — to test a gas-tax alternative.
The state put out the call last summer for volunteers to take part in a pilot program that may be the first step toward a road usage charge, which taxes vehicles by miles traveled rather than by gasoline guzzled. Last week, word came that about half of the 2,000 drivers needed had stepped forward, but that another 1,000 or so are needed for the program to get going early next year, as the state would like to do.
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The state Road Usage Charge Steering Committee — yes, “steering” is in the title — is overseeing the project, and it welcomes drivers from the open spaces of Central Washington and with any kind of car, whether a green electric vehicle or a fuel-thirsty pickup or SUV. For monitoring, drivers will have a choice of a mileage permit with a predetermined block of miles, routine odometer readings, a GPS device or a cellphone app. The Legislature will accept feedback from the test and will shape future policy from there.
The public is likely to be wary of a government program that tracks where people are driving, and state Sen. Curtis King of Yakima raises the question of how to factor in miles driven out of state. Nonetheless, the gas tax – which has been around since 1921 – is due for a review. Motorists behind the wheel of a hybrid or electric car still use the roads and contribute to wear and tear, but they contribute less for construction and upkeep of those motorways.
So ... will a miles tax be an improvement over a gas tax? The state’s experiment, if it gets the required number of drivers, will be a step toward determining whether — as a matter of both policy and politics — it is a way to go.
▪ To participate in the survey: waroadusagecharge.org