Lawmakers hear pitch to replace gas tax with per-mile fee

Transportation officials recommend 10-year transition

OLYMPIA — State lawmakers will consider a gradual transition from the state’s current gasoline tax to a system that would charge drivers fees based on how many miles they travel.

This comes amid rising concerns over the amount of revenue available to fund transportation and the maintenance of roads and highways due to increasing fuel-efficiency among vehicles, as well as concerns that owners of older and less fuel-efficient vehicles are carrying a larger tax burden.

The House Transportation Committee heard a report Thursday from the Washington State Transportation Commission on the feasibility and logistics of a road usage charge program.

Reema Griffith, executive director of the Washington State Transportation Commission, said “not everyone is paying their fair share for use of the roads.”

Griffith said drivers whose cars average fewer than 20 miles-per-gallon fuel efficiency could be paying up to 5 cents in taxes for every mile they drive, while drivers whose cars get more than 20 miles-per-gallon could be paying as little as one penny.

She said the current gas tax system creates a situation in which the vehicles people can afford, or what their lifestyle allows, determines how much they pay when traveling.

“Taxing gallons does have fairness and equity challenges,” Griffith said.

Griffith said the Transportation Commission recommends a slow transition from the current gas tax to the road usage charge over the next 10 years with the old and new tax systems running parallel to each other initially. She said while collection of the per mile fees will be more costly than collection of the gas tax, which drivers pay at the pump, the net revenue from the road usage charge will exceed that provided by the gas tax.

The transportation commission conducted a pilot test with a diverse range of drivers in the state who drove a collective 15 million miles during the pilot program and paid a rate of 2.4 cents per mile driven.

Multiple methods of measuring miles driven were tested, including odometer measurements reported quarterly, a smartphone app, permits that allow for a specific block or number of miles to be driven, and plug-in devices that operate both with and without GPS.

Griffith said surveys and focus groups done with test drivers indicated that privacy was one of their greatest concerns. She said 47 percent of pilot program participants did not want GPS to be used to track their vehicle.

The commission’s report estimated that under the road usage charge, owners of less fuel efficient vehicles will likely pay less and hybrid/electric vehicle owners who drive more than 12,000 miles per year could end up paying more than they currently do.

Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, expressed concerns that implementation of the road usage charge could shift the equity disparity burden to owners of vehicles with higher fuel efficiency, which might disincentivize people to purchase hybrid and electric vehicles.

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This story is part of a series of news reports from the Washington State Legislature provided through a reporting internship sponsored by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation.

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