Editorial: Pay-per-mile tax vs. gas tax. Lawmakers need to study up

The test drive is over and now it’s time for the haggling.

A pilot project that monitored how 2,000 volunteers managed a pay-per-mile tax program is complete, and a report on the findings is scheduled to be sent to the Washington Transportation Commission in October.

Commissioners are expected to vote on the plan Dec. 17, and if they have a recommendation it will go to the Legislature next year.

This is happening.

Even though we don’t know how the commission will vote, lawmakers would be smart to research this issue as much as possible ahead of their session in January — just in case.

A road use tax will not be an easy sell, and legislators should be prepared for the controversy.

State officials are exploring the pay-per-mile option because they say state gas tax revenue is dropping, and there won’t be enough money in the future to cover the cost of roads, bridges and infrastructure.

Cars are becoming more fuel efficient, and more people are driving hybrid and electrical vehicles, which means taxes from selling gas at the pump is declining.

Among those who participated in the pilot program is Richard Pirtle of Kennewick.

The 29-year-old is sold on the road use tax plan.

Pirtle said for him, a pay-per-mile system ends up being cheaper. He said he isn’t a big driver, and mostly goes to work and back. With his driving habits, he would end up getting a small refund, he said.

Participants in the experiment had three options for tracking their mileage.

They could submit a photo of their odometer to the Department of Licensing every few months, they could use a smartphone app that tracks the miles they drive, or they could attach a state-provided GPS plug-in device to their vehicle.

Pirtle said he opted to use the app on his smartphone and sent in pictures of his odometer. He said it took no time at all and he did not feel inconvenienced.

If people have time to look on their Facebook page on their smartphone, then they have time to comply with a pay-per-mile program, he said.

For Pirtle, who doesn’t drive a lot, a road use tax probably would work well.

But not everyone drives as little as he does.

What about people with long commutes, rural residents, college kids delivering pizza and parents who drive children all over town for piano lessons, soccer practices and dance classes?

Citizens who have to drive long distances on a regular basis will be affected the most, and any proposal to charge them for miles they drive will have to be explained thoroughly if state officials expect these high-mileage taxpayers to buy into a pay-per-mile plan.

Many people are already concerned about protecting their privacy, and will not want the government tracking their driving habits with a GPS device — even if that is the most convenient way to track their miles.

And if drivers don’t use GPS, tracking out-of-state miles and long private roads will be more complicated.

Also —and this is a big one — many will want to know if the pay-per-mile program replaces the current gas tax or adds to it.

Sen. Rebecca Saldana, vice chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee, told McClatchy that a pay-per-mile system would have to be phased in over 10 to 25 years because the state has sold bonds for transportation projects based on revenue projections from the gas tax.

Those bonds would have to be paid off before the state replaced the gas tax completely with a pay-per-mile system, she said.

The phase-in could involve forcing only newer cars or the highest-mileage vehicles to use the pay-per-mile tax.

Such a system might be a palatable way to start the program, but it would still require an attitude adjustment by Washington citizens — and that won’t be easy.

If the transportation commission decides to pursue this plan, it had better be prepared for a tough sell.

Some people, like Kennewick’s Richard Pirtle will be all for it, but we expect there will be vocal and emotional pushback by many other Washington state drivers.

Legislators should brace themselves.