Washington state is conducting a road user charge (RUC) fee pilot program to test different ways drivers might one day track and pay a statewide 2.4 cent-per-mile fee. The idea is to have it gradually replace the state gas tax, one of the highest in the nation, as the revenue stream is expected to decline in the next two decades as fuel efficiency increases.
However, state trucking industry leaders prefer the option of raising the gas tax as revenue goes down.
Frank Riordan is the president of Becker Trucking in Tukwila, as well as president of the Washington Trucking Associations. He is also a member of the Washington State Transportation Commission’s (WSTC) RUC Steering Committee.
He told Lens that even though the proposed RUC would not immediately affect them – the fee would apply to vehicles weighing 10,000 lbs. or less – he said “that could change. And we’re watching it (proposal) constantly.”
Truckers already pay more than their “fair share” of road usage, Riordan said; while they make up six percent of road usage, they pay 18 percent of the gas tax revenue collected.
Yet Riordan believes it’s still preferable to an RUC for more than one reason. Among them is the collection process. Currently, the gas tax is paid by drivers at the pump along with the fuel itself. One of the challengers for the RUC pilot program is figuring out how drivers could determine the amount due, because not all miles are driven in the state.
“It’s going to cost a lot more money (to collect),” Riordan said. “Can you see the labor involved in all this?”
Riordan’s view may be the minority on the steering committee, but it’s shared by other industry leaders. That includes the American Trucking Associations. At a recent meeting of the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, CEO Chris Spear told lawmakers that they support an increased federal gas tax rather than an RUC.
Familiarity is one advantage of the gas tax, and the increased gas prices are passed on in the form of fuel surcharges for shipping, Riordan said. “We’ve dealt with it all these years.”
But the biggest reservation has to do with whether the RUC money would go toward roads. Gas tax revenue is constitutionally protected under the 18th Amendment. However, the Puget Sound Regional Council’s proposed update to its Transportation 2040 plan says “a broader consideration of possible uses of revenue may be warranted” with an RUC.
Among those possible uses is to fund mass transit, something Riordan fears would reduce road funding or offer justification for a higher RUC rate.
Yet not providing constitutional safeguards on that money might make an RUC politically impossible. The public is already highly skeptical, reflected in a survey for the steering committee that found nearly 60 percent of Washingtonians were against a mileage charge. Incidentally, a similar percentage of people disagreed with the idea that “government does a good job managing transportation spending in Washington” and believed that the RUC tax was “just another way for Washington government to tax people.”
“There’s not a lot of strong faith in government,” Riordan said. “We have the second-highest gas tax, but nobody sees any improvement. I know we’re moving a lot of people in here, but when has anything gotten better?”
Raising the gas tax to compensate for decreasing revenue would require a 1.5 cent-per-gallon annual increase starting next year. It’s a proposal that some say is untenable, but is supported by transportation experts such as Tom Rubin. He is an Oakland-based mass transit consultant who served as controller-treasurer of the Southern California Rapid Transit District.
As Riordan sees it, when drivers pay the state gas tax they at least know where it goes, such as the $16 billion Connecting Washington transportation package passed in 2015 that raised the gas tax by 11.9 cents. The 16-year investment funds infrastructure improvements projects in critical corridors around the state.
“We know that money is going to at least help us with some roads,” Riordan said. “We know that money is protected and not going into mass transit.”