Bumpy road possible for road user charge

Bumpy road possible for road user charge
The Washington State Transportation Commission’s road user charge (RUC) pilot program is set to kick off this year. A January 16 work session underscored some of the remaining issues state officials hope participants will help them resolve. Photo: SounderBruce

With Washington’s road user charge fee (RUC) pilot program scheduled to start this year, some anticipate a possible decision by the legislature about whether to permanently adopt the program after the results of the pilot are released.

At a January 16 work session of the Senate Transportation Committee, Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC) officials highlighted some of the challenges with implementing a statewide RUC that they hope the 2,000 drivers they pick for the pilot program will help resolve. Among the issues are payment methods, accurately tracking miles driven in and out of state and how to address out-of-state drivers.

“We want to see what happens when people have real dollars and cross the border, let’s say to Portland, on a daily basis and how that gets reconciled between our two states, so we can kind of uncover what potential reconciliation challenges we might find in a real-world test,” WSTC Director Rema Griffith told panel members.

However, proponents also face other obstacles besides RUC’s complexity, which include the fact that 60 percent of Washingtonians oppose RUC. Now, however, the financial assumptions by a regional planning agency and talk of flexibility with how RUC revenue is spent could make it an even tougher sell.

The legislature authorized exploration of the RUC in 2012 as a potential replacement for the state gas tax, the revenue from which is expected to decline 40 percent by 2030 due to increasing vehicle gas mileage. However, Griffith says that day could come much faster.

“We think that’s very conservative,” she said. “We think that transition of increased fuel efficiency regardless of fuel sources is going to continue to climb, perhaps at a quicker rate.”

Even though the pilot program hasn’t kicked off yet, the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) is already planning on $27.6 billion in RUC revenue between 2018-2040, which constitutes 70 percent of the new revenue assumed for new projects in their proposed Transportation 2040 Update. Public comment on the update is allowed until the end of the month.

The assumption was noted by Washington Policy Center Transportation Director Mariya Frost, who remarked in a blog post that “the Road Usage Charge pilot project is just starting this year and is already controversial, so the PSRC’s assumption about its passage and how the money would be spent is highly presumptuous.”

The update also envisions possibly loosening restrictions on how RUC revenue is spent. “In the longer term, if pay-per-mile road usage charges are implemented, a broader consideration of possible uses of revenues may be warranted…to offset existing taxes and fees (such as the elimination of a state tax on fuels, or vehicle fees) with user-fee revenues.”

This would be a departure from restrictions on the use of gas tax revenue. The 18th Amendment to the Washington State Constitution stipulates that it can only be spent on transportation projects.

“This would allow officials to spend the money on what they feel is best for us rather than on actual public demand, a concern we have highlighted repeatedly,” Frost wrote further. “If the PSRC gets what they want, the charge will not be a true user fee but a tax, and less money could go to roads.”

Another dilemma for RUC supporters has been reconciling it with the push for more environmentally friendly vehicles such as hybrids. If implemented, the fee would raise the monthly bill for a Toyota Prius owner, while lowering the cost for someone driving a Ford F150 pickup the same number of miles per month.

“The reaction to that often is you’re dis-incentivizing the use of high fuel-efficiency cars by doing this because people are buying these fuel-efficient cars thinking they’re going to get a tax break,” Griffith said. However, she added that the pickup driver’s monthly costs are still higher.

State officials might have another possible complication on their hands if cities in British Columbia such as Vancouver enact their own RUC. “What would that mean for our international border crossing with all the traffic if two countries were trying to determine who owed who for the miles driven in their jurisdictions?” Griffith said. She added they plan to have 200 drivers near the border participate in the pilot program. Cross-border testing with drivers between Idaho and Washington is also planned.

Privacy concerns have also played a role in shaping the RUC discussion in Washington and elsewhere; in the Netherlands, a planned RUC was put on hold when the security of personal information collected by the government was called into question. These worries are the primary cause for the complications tracking in and out of state driving, since GPS-reliant RUC devices could determine this. In response, WSDTC’s pilot program will offer participating drivers five separate mileage reporting methods ranging from a prepaid mileage permit to a smartphone app that doesn’t rely on GPS.

The state’s RUC plans could also be impacted by a nationwide user fee to replace the federal gas tax, a possibility explored in a 2016 Congressional Research Service report.

A final report on the pilot program will be presented to Governor Jay Inslee and the state legislature in 2020.

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