Washington drivers may have to decide if they prefer a road user charge (RUC) fee or higher prices at the gas pump every year to maintain the state’s revenue for transportation infrastructure.
This was a scenario highlighted during a Monday, May 15 transportation forum as part of the Washington Policy Center’s Solutions Summit in downtown Bellevue. With plans underway by the Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC) to begin an RUC pilot project next year involving 2,000 drivers, it’s an option touted by some state officials as an ideal alternative to the gas tax as revenue is projected to plummet in the near future.
However, some transportation experts caution that the switch could invite a host of new problems such as fraud, scammers and security issues.
Washington drivers currently pay a 49-cent state gas tax for every gallon at the pump; in 2015, the state legislature raised it by 7.5 cents to pay for the $16 billion Connecting Washington transportation package.
The state faces two dilemmas. Greater vehicle fuel efficiency could result in a 45-percent gas tax revenue reduction by 2035. By 2027, 77 percent of the state’s fuel tax revenue will be tied to existing long-term debt payments.
WSTC Executive Director Reema Griffith believes the RUC could replace the gas tax and maintain state transportation revenue. It’s an idea under consideration by 14 Western states.
At the Monday forum, Griffith told attendees that the “thrust of this work is about revenue sustainability. It’s not about generating more.” She added that charging per mile seems more appealing than trying to determine which alternative fuel to tax. An RUC would be similar to utilities such as water and electricity, in which drivers pay based on the amount of road they travel rather than the gas efficiency of their vehicle.
A May 2013 study by D’Artagnan Consulting of an RUC pilot program for the Washington State Department of Transportation found that “user opinions of a RUC policy either improved or remained neutral as a result of their participation.”
That said, RUC faces security and privacy concerns. Griffith cited various possible ways to calculate miles traveled, ranging from nonintrusive odometers and time permits, which would not track the vehicle’s location, to GPS-equipped automated meters and smart phone apps. However, the higher-tech options would probably be necessary to track miles traveled in and out of Washington.
Even then, Griffith admitted that “out of state drivers is going to be an issue. We don’t claim to have all the answers. Part of the process here is the unique opportunity for the public to get involved.”
One alternative to implementing an RUC is raising the gas tax rate as necessary to keep revenue levels consistent. That would require a 1.5-cent-per-gallon annual increase between 2019-2043.
It’s an idea Washington shouldn’t dismiss lightly, argued Tom Rubin, an Oakland-based mass transit consultant who served as controller-treasurer of the Southern California Rapid Transit District. He’s also written several papers for the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank. A higher gas tax is an option already taken by 12 states since 2015, Rubin said, and 11 other states are contemplating it.
Politically, a higher gas tax will be just as controversial as the RUC, he argued.
There are many advantages to the gas tax, he said. It’s simple, nonintrusive and extremely difficult for fuel-consumers to avoid paying. The same can’t be said for RUC, he added. Odometers can be turned back, and electronic devices can be tampered with. Scammers could also hack into people’s accounts or create fake ones.
“Do we really want to encourage the techies to find new ways to do it?” he asked.
Addressing privacy issues, he warned that the same devices that can track miles traveled in and out of state could also be used one day to continuously monitor a vehicle’s every move and automatically cite the driver for violations such as speeding or veering out of a lane.
“Be very worried,” he said.
Whatever route the state decides to take, “the method you’re coming up with must be good at collecting a tax,” he concluded. “It must be fair and it must be perceived as being fair. If it’s an unpopular tax…you will get noncompliance problems.”