Protecting Washington transportation revenue

Protecting Washington transportation revenue
Recent comments by state officials and lawmakers suggest that if Washington adopts a road user charge fee program, the revenue will be constitutionally protected as with the state gas tax. Photo: freepik.com

One of the concerns Washington residents may have about a possible road user charge (RUC) to replace the state gas tax for funding transportation projects is that the revenue might not be constitutionally protected. Under the 18th Amendment to the state constitution, gas tax revenue can only be spent on roads, highways and bridges.

However, recent comments made by state officials and legislators at a Jan. 30 Senate Transportation Committee public hearing strongly suggest that the issue could be resolved before any RUC program is voted on by the legislature.

While rural Washington drivers already are responsible for a disproportionate share of the gas tax due to either vehicles with lower fuel efficiencies or farther distances to travel for work, a RUC could also reinforce that inequity since it is based on miles driven. SB 5255 sponsored by Sen. Tim Sheldon (D-35) would prohibit the state from collecting RUC revenue in rural counties, which represent 30 of the 39 counties.

At the Jan. 30 public hearing, Sheldon told colleagues that there’s little support for the idea among his constituents, who are also concerned about privacy and data collection.

“People are fearful of it,” he said. “I think it would be a hit for us in the rural areas, and hopefully we can pass this bill and make a little more recognition of the differences, not between Republican and Democrats in Olympia, but between the rural legislators and the urban legislators.”

Currently, the Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC) is conducting a RUC pilot program and oversees the RUC steering committee that includes Transportation Committee member Sen. Phil Fortunato (R-31).

WSTC Executive Director Reema Griffith argued at the public hearing that if the RUC were banned in rural counties, it would “leave the gas tax as a primary source of revenue…leaving rural drivers disproportionately impacted by future gas tax rate increases and denying them the opportunity to lower their share of taxes.

“We would urge the Senate to wait for the results of our road user charge assessment. We’d like to have the opportunity to review and discuss those recommendations and findings before any policies are set.”

When Sheldon asked Griffith if RUC revenue would be constitutionally protected as with the gas tax, she replied that “ultimately it’s up to the legislature to decide.” However, she added that the steering committee and likely the WSTC will recommend RUC revenue be protected as well, “because it’s been construed by the legislature as a replacement to the gas tax, not an addition to (it).”

No further action is scheduled for SB 5255 at this time.

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