Washington’s road user charge (RUC) fee pilot program is underway with 2,000 volunteer drivers testing out a variety of ways to keep track of and pay for the number of miles driven. The results will help shape any recommendations made by the Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC) regarding an RUC in the state in order to fund future transportation projects.
Meanwhile, transportation experts, including some participating in the program, have weighed in on potential roadblocks RUC advocates will have to navigate to win public favor.
RUC proponents see the fee as an ideal way to replace the state’s gas tax, already one of the highest in the nation. State officials anticipate an alarming decline in gas tax revenue in upcoming decades, as vehicle fuel efficiency increases.
It’s an idea also discussed at the federal level. The 2018 Economic Report of the President by the Council of Economic Advisers states that “fuel taxes have historically acted as imperfect user fees, but conventional funding models are now under pressure from rising fuel efficiency and the use of electric vehicles, and congestion costs are high and rising in many urban areas. Innovations such as user fees for vehicle miles traveled…and highway tolls that vary with congestion can increase efficiency and raise needed revenues to pay for infrastructure improvements and additions to capacity.”
However, some argue the state could simply increase the tax rate, an option the U.S. Chamber of Commerce supports for the federal gas tax. A recent Bloomberg article says that proposal only amounts to “a stopgap,” as hybrids and other electric vehicles become more popular.
Aside from practicality challenges, the RUC’s biggest dilemma seems to be its PR image. A survey conducted for WTSC’s RUC Steering Committee found almost 60 percent of Washingtonians oppose an RUC. One of the reasons could be confusion over whether it is a tax or a fee based on the use of how much one uses the roads.
That’s according to Robert Poole, the director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation. In a recent post on the notion of a federal RUC, he wrote: “many think it would be an additional ‘tax’ on driving and most also assume that it would require the government to keep track of when and where everyone drives.
“That’s why the growing number of state pilot programs, partly funded by federal grants, is critically important,” he added.
In 2016, Washington received $3.847 million for its pilot program that now allows participants to use a variety of methods to track their mileage, ranging from a prepaid mileage permit to a smartphone app. Each comes with a benefit and disadvantage. Prepay makes it difficult to separate miles driven in and out of the state, an issue not only for those living on state borders but also near British Columbia. However, more advanced tracking options raise significant privacy concerns regarding how the data is used, who has access to it, and security measures to protect it against cyberattacks and manipulation.
Reema Griffith is WTSC’s executive director. She told Lens that the pilot program’s results will help determine which method would work best for the state to use if it decides to enact the RUC. Not only will the mileage tracker have to account for out-of-state miles and enforcement costs, but it will also have to have public support. An unconfirmed survey of program participants found they were narrowly split between manual and GPS-equipped methods. In contrast, Oregon’s program only uses GPS-devices.
“We think it’s best that people have a choice,” Griffith said.
Among the state’s RUC pilot program participants is Washington Policy Center Transportation Director Mariya Frost, who selected a GPS-device to track her miles. In a recent blog post, she detailed the amount of data collected by the device.
“The app tells me exactly where I drove over the speed limit and for how long. The results and capabilities of the app were surprising and made me feel uncomfortable, even if this data is collected and displayed solely for my own benefit,” she wrote. “Data that is collected by the state is data that can be kept and used.”
In theory, the app is meant to track miles as part of the RUC program, not monitor driving habits. But if implemented using the smartphone app, that data may be accessible by law enforcement. Although not directly involved in the program, the RUC final report says the Washington State Patrol “should be consulted for specific input” on “roadside enforcement approaches and activities” to “help develop a future RUC system.”
Frost notes: “The WSTC and the service provider I consented to release information to (DriveSync) do state that personal information can be disclosed without consent or knowledge but only when required or permitted by law. The problem is – no one believes it.”
Nevertheless, Poole concludes that “the biggest challenge facing this needed transition is the idea that it should be a tax, rather than a user fee. Fuel taxes began as pure user taxes: highway users paid the tax, the money was set aside in dedicated highway funds, and the proceeds were spent to benefit those same highway users. That principle was pretty well adhered to for about 50 years, but since then has broken down.
“We don’t fund our other vital infrastructure that way,” he added. “We pay our electric bill directly to the electric company, based on how much we have used. We pay our natural gas bill the same way, and our water bill, and our cable/satellite bill, and our mobile phone bill.”
Yet, some Washington regional planning agencies are already talking about possibly lifting restrictions on where the RUC revenue would be spent, whereas gas tax money is constitutionally protected. The Puget Sound Regional Council’s proposed update to its Transportation 2040 plan assumes $27 million in RUC revenue. It also states that “if pay-per-mile road usage charges are implemented, a broader consideration of possible uses of revenue may be warranted” (Page 79 of 104). The agency is accepting public comment on the proposed update until May 31.
Frost told Lens that beyond privacy issues, her biggest concern is that the RUC as proposed could easily change once put into law. “This assumes in the sunniest scenario that the rate is flat and isn’t indexed for inflation and doesn’t change with congestion. That’s the concerns we have.”
However, Griffith said the RUC won’t replace the gas tax anytime soon. Instead, she envisions a long, gradual integration where it is first applied to high-fuel efficient vehicles and electric cars.
“The beauty is, the gas tax is holding,” Griffith said. “They (revenues) aren’t going downhill, so we do have some time.”
The pilot program will run throughout 2018. WTSC will present its recommendation to the legislature in 2020.