With the conclusion of the state’s road user charge (RUC) pilot program next month, the Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC) is already examining some of the survey data collected from participants that showed positive feedback overall with persistent concerns over user privacy. That feedback and other metrics may help shape WSTC recommendations to the legislature regarding a potential RUC fee to replace the gas tax in the years to come.
However, some of the participants say policymakers shouldn’t interpret the survey results as support for an actual RUC program, nor should the pilot be seen as an accurate reflection of what the state is likely to implement.
One major issue unaddressed by the pilot program is how the revenue can be used by the state and whether it will include the same constitutional protections as gas tax money.
Of the 2,052 participants, 1,547 – or 75 percent of them – completed the survey. Over half (55 percent) used a plug-in device with or without location data, while 26 percent used an odometer reading. Seventeen percent used a smartphone app.
On the surface, the participant feedback contrasts strongly with a 2013 poll by the RUC Steering Committee in which Washingtonians were overwhelming opposed to RUC and felt their transportation dollars weren’t spent well. Nearly 80 percent said the tracking did not interfere with their ability to drive, while 81 percent said their chosen tracking methods accurately reported their mileage. Almost 58 percent of participants surveyed said it was very easy to review their mileage data, and 65 percent said it was easy interacting with customer service.
Among those surveyed, 34 percent “strongly supported” replacing the gas tax with an RUC fee, while 31 percent “somewhat supported it.” Twenty percent were either somewhat or strongly opposed, and another 14 percent felt they needed more information.
When asked about their priorities for the RUC system, the top five aspects listed as “very important” were:
- Privacy (90 percent)
- Simplicity (79 percent)
- Transparency (74 percent)
- Data security (77 percent)
- Cost-effectiveness (67percent)
Interestingly, although state officials have wondered how to account for out-of-state drivers on Washington roads, only 43 percent of participants listed it as “very important,” compared to 57percent for enforcement and 58 percent for user options.
At WSTC’s Dec. 11 meeting, Project Manager Jeff Doyle told panel members that while trust among participants regarding personal data was relatively high, there was still a significant percentage of those who weren’t sure. He said this indicates “people are still really concerned about privacy.”
However, Washington Policy Center Transportation Director Mariya Frost says the survey doesn’t tell policymakers much. A participant in the program, Frost said that despite clear privacy concerns, people “have no means by which to verify their expressed trust in in the protection of their travel data. There is no way to verify if our trust is misplaced.”
Ultimately, participants defined success as having “tangible and visible outcomes” that includes well-maintained roads and bridges and an improved transportation system funded with sufficient RUC revenue. Along with high operating costs compared to negligible resources needed to collect the gas tax, an RUC program could have trouble achieving that vision of success if state lawmakers allow the revenue to be diverted to other uses such as transit. Whether restrictions should be imposed on the use of that money was also one of the discussions at the WTCS’s Dec. 11 meeting.
The outcome preferred by the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) would allow for “a broader consideration of possible uses” for the money. The regional planning council anticipates $27 billion in RUC revenue between 2018-2040.
Frost said that a proposed RUC program will have to contend not only with trust issues over personal data protection, but also “assurances about how the money will be spent. If RUC revenue is spent on anything other than highways, it will not be a true gas tax replacement or user fee, as it will serve an entirely different purpose than the gas tax.”
She added: “To the commission’s credit, they have done their part in including people who are highly skeptical, like me.”