This coming December the Washington State Transportation Commission’s (WSTC) road user charge (RUC) steering committee plans to submit recommendations to the legislature for the 2020 legislative session. Some of those proposals may be based on feedback received from participants through a recent survey that shows overwhelming satisfaction with the project. However, the responses also highlighted top concerns about privacy and security over other technical challenges that could help policymakers determine if and how to implement such a program.
Those in favor of an RUC see it as an effective way to replace the state gas tax as a source of revenue to pay for highway construction and maintenance. Gas tax revenue remains stable, but is expected to decrease in the next several decades due to improved vehicle fuel efficiency. However, the gas tax holds several major advantages over an RUC; it’s nonintrusive, doesn’t require any overhead costs to collect and it applies to anyone fueling their vehicle in Washington state outside of tribal reservations. In contrast, an RUC not only would have to accurately track Washington state drivers, but ideally collect revenue from out-of-state residents.
Yet that’s not the biggest worry of those surveyed who participated in the RUC pilot program. According to the survey shared at WTSC’s July 16 meeting, their top two concerns were privacy and data collection. As part of the program, drivers could choose from a variety of tracking methods ranging from non-intrusive methods such as an odometer reading to a plug-in device. After that, compliance and administrative costs of the program were the top concerns among respondents.
D’Artagnan Consulting Partner Jeff Doyle told WTSC members that “I don’t think privacy and security is ever solved. I think it’s something that is obviously always going to have to be continually managed and improved. That’s their expectation if there’s going to be a usage charge system.”
The survey found that more than 90 percent of 1,491 respondents said they were satisfied or very satisfied with the pilot program. Of the total respondents, 577 said they had changed their attitude about an RUC program, with 164 participants more supportive than before compared to 113 less supportive.
However, Washington Policy Center Transportation Director Mariya Frost who participated in the pilot program told Lens the survey “doesn’t necessarily reflect the 6 million drivers in Washington state who pay gas taxes at the pump. These are people who heard, knew, signed up, went through all the process required this last year in the pilot project. I’d be really interested in a scientific poll of what the entire state of Washington would say about this.”
Doyle told the WSTC that the consulting firm is also conducting a business case analysis to address another hurdle the steering committee faces regarding what “a potential transition to an RUC system would even look like. Who would pay? When they would pay? How they would pay?”
According to the survey, program participants have slowly shifted their attitudes in favor of replacing the gas tax with an RUC. The first survey of 1,675 showed 51 percent in favor, with only 17 percent opposed. The most recent survey of 1,491 had 72 percent in favor, with 21 percent opposed.
However, Frost said “calling it a ‘replacement’” to the gas tax “is not honest,” because questions regarding how and where the revenue could be used have not been determined. Although WSTC favors restricting RUC revenue to highways, the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) favors a “broader” use of the money and anticipates billions available to pay for transit.
The next steering committee meeting is September 10, with the WSTC adopting the final report with recommendations on December 17.