The Washington State Transportation Commission’s (WSTC) road user charge (RUC) pilot program is scheduled to begin next year. WSTC officials hope to get 2,000 drivers to participate in the yearlong experiment to gauge the most effective way of tracking and calculating miles driven within the state, as well as the best way to collect the fees.
Another hope is that the program results help them overcome a major political obstacle: public opposition to RUC as a replacement to the state gas tax. According to a survey conducted for WTSC’s RUC Steering Committee, nearly 60 percent of Washingtonians are opposed to the RUC (page 30 of 72). By a similar percentage, state residents also felt that the RUC “is just another way for Washington government to tax people.”
Right now, drivers pay a 49-cent-per-gallon state gas tax. However, the state anticipates a significant drop in gas tax revenue as vehicles become more fuel efficient. Since 2012, the state has been looking at RUC as a possible solution to the issue. The program would charge Washington drivers for every mile driven within the state.
WSTC Executive Director Reema Griffith told Lens that the pilot program will gauge participant feedback on the different RUC reporting options available, which range from a prepaid mileage permit to a smartphone app.
“When you rethink a paradigm shift from what we have today, which has been around 100 years, to something of this notion, the most important thing at this point is, is the public going to accept it,” she said.
However, she added that “the form it (RUC) ultimately takes in the future is somewhat unknown. We’re not saying this is the way it will be. We’re just trying to test conceptual ideas.”
Aside from public perception, another challenge for implementing RUC is how to separate miles driven in and out of state. It’s not necessarily a problem for drivers using GPS and smartphone apps, but those devices also raise the most privacy concerns. Each option has tradeoffs that must be looked at, Griffith said.
“We have to offer options and the test will have those four options,” she added.
Another problem the state will face with RUC will be data security to prevent either hacking or fraud.
“In general, we’ll learn more about that with the actual gizmos we test,” Griffith said. “We know this will be an ongoing challenge with the private sector industry that are creating these devices.”
Washington is one of several states including Delaware, Hawaii, Oregon, Minnesota and Missouri that are looking at RUC, thanks to federal grants from the Highway Trust Fund. California already has a pilot program underway with 5,000 participants, and Colorado also had one with 100 participants.
Washington may also look to neighboring Oregon for inspiration. In 2015, the Beaver State set up a voluntary RUC program that now has 1,000 participants.
A Texas-based study of that state’s program made the following conclusions:
- “Consumer choice, in the form of an open market system, is essential in implementing a policy centered on collecting revenues on behalf of the state.”
- “RUC messaging significantly depends on the audience, as urban, rural, and mixed communities have different concerns.”
- “Promoting the RUC not as a “new” tax, but as greater fairness in taxation, is essential to the program’s success.”
Transportation experts such as Robert Poole have argued that RUC proponents should market it as a fee, rather than a tax, if they want the public to accept it. He is the director of transportation policy and the Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow at Reason Foundation.
In a July post about a federal RUC, he wrote: “What if people’s monthly highway bill was as transparent and straightforward as their mobile-phone bill, electric bill, water bill, and cable or broadband bill? With all those utilities, you are charged based on the services you use; the funds go directly to the provider of the service; and the money is used solely for the capital and operating costs of the infrastructure used.
“Changing the way we pay for our highways and bridges (by shifting from per-gallon to per-mile) offers a once-in-a-century opportunity to rethink how this vital infrastructure is managed, as well as how it is paid for,” he wrote further. “Converting those highways, state by state, from fuel taxes to state-of-the-art all-electronic tolling (AET) would be comparatively simple, since we already have two working organizational models in operation: public-sector toll agencies and long-term P3 toll concessions.”
However, Washington Policy Center Transportation Center Director Mariya Frost argues that state officials should take the recent survey results to heart. Among them was the finding that 60 percent of residents surveyed “disagreed that the government does a good job managing transportation spending in Washington.”
In a recent post, Frost wrote that “drivers pay a tremendous amount of money toward transportation, yet are told to take transit or pay more to drive instead. This erodes public trust, which is clearly seen in the survey results that were reported to the steering committee. Rather than using the results to their advantage and plotting how they can push through a new tax that drivers don’t want, public officials should focus on responding to what people do want: congestion relief and improved mobility.”