One planned feature of the Washington State Transportation Commission’s (WSTC) ongoing road user charge (RUC) pilot program is obtaining frequent participant feedback on their experiences. One recent finding indicates that the use of the smartphone app to track mileage is popular, and many participants want the option features expanded.
Participating drivers with iPhones can download the smartphone app MileMapper™, allowing them to report in- and out-of-state miles without having to plug a device directly into the car. Inspired by the UW Smartphone Innovation Challenge and still in beta testing, drivers turn on the app to measure mileage, which is submitted monthly to pay for those miles. Out-of-state driving is deducted from the total miles. The app is designed to only send out GPS data when authorized.
Preference for the app among some drivers was one of several findings presented to the WSTC at an April 18 meeting as part of an update on the pilot program, which started in January.
So far, drivers using a GPS tracking device have received their first invoice detailing how many miles they’ve driven. One of the numerous unresolved questions the project aims to address is how to track in-state miles driven while considering privacy concerns, one of 12 guiding principles for the program. There is also a plan to have drivers with GPS devices drive across state and national borders to test its effectiveness and how to distribute the monies accordingly.
Oregon also has an RUC pilot program underway, though it only allows for one tracking method. Other states with RUC programs are Colorado and California, and the federal government is also considering its own RUC.
Proponents of an RUC argue that it’s the best way to eventually replace the state gas tax – the second highest in the nation. Although current revenue is steady, it is expected to drop dramatically in the decades to come as vehicle fuel efficiency rises. However, critics such as the trucking industry say that the gas tax should simply be raised accordingly.
Two major advantages of the gas tax highlighted by supporters are its simplicity and anonymity. The tax is paid directly at the pump, doesn’t track where people drive and doesn’t cost the state much to collect. All three present challenges for any RUC program the state chooses to implement.
However, privacy worries so far haven’t deterred many participants from picking the GPS-equipped options; WSTC estimates an even split among the non-GPS options, such as a mileage sticker or odometer reading.
Also, the update finds that “early indications are that participants want mobile apps –and expect those apps to be feature-rich.”
More surveys are planned to learn more. Over 5,000 Washingtonians volunteered for the program; 2,000 were ultimately selected.
Other tracking devices favor privacy over convenience, or vice versa. One plug-in device tracks mileage driven without GPS data, but can’t differentiate between in- and out-of-state miles. Others can separate the two, but GPS data is shared with a third party. Also, those devices don’t work on cars made before 1996.
If policymakers want to get the best of both worlds, the smartphone app may be the solution. It’s a theory proposed in a 2017 study by the University of California’s Institute of Transportation Studies. The authors posited that “among possible data collection paradigms, Virtual Trip Lines (VTLs) can collect geo-localized data for RUC in a privacy preserving environment. Privacy preserving architectures enable the precise accounting of a mileage fee (based on mileage, road used, and time the road was used, etc.), without recording or storing information.”
Aside from transparency over how the miles are tracked and charged, WSTC is also looking at how to simplify the invoice process.
However, state officials will eventually have to confront their largest challenge – public opinion. A survey conducted for WSTC found that 60 percent of Washingtonians oppose an RUC. It may be tied to how well, or poorly, they believe gas tax money is already spent.
There’s also uncertainty as to the eventual full cost. One program participant is Mariya Frost, director of transportation at the Washington Policy Center. She recently reported that her RUC bill after driving 998 miles was $23.95, $9.64 after state gas tax credit was applied. WSTC officials have previously stated that their plan is to have a transitional period between the two taxes, but drivers won’t pay both.
Frost writes that “assuming my driving patterns don’t drastically change, $9.64 per month is a little over $115 annually in additional tax. With people in the Puget Sound region already paying hundreds of dollars more each year in motor vehicle excise tax overcharges and property taxes that benefit Sound Transit, those two lattes a month are deceptively expensive. They could become even more expensive if public officials later choose to increase the 2.4-cent rate used in the pilot. The state gas tax has increased 115% just in the last 20 years.”
A mid-year update on the RUC program is expected to be released in June.