Crossroads ahead for road usage charge

Crossroads ahead for road usage charge
The Washington State Transportation Commission will vote in December to adopt a report to the legislature containing recommendations for a road usage charge program. Photo: freepik.com

The Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC) in December will deliver a report to the legislature outlining recommendations on a road user charge (RUC) fee. Those recommendations will be based in part on the results of a pilot program completed last year.

Although much remains unsettled regarding the RUC, a presentation by Project Manager Jeff Doyle and Deputy State Treasurer Jason Richter at the WSTC’s Oct. 15 meeting indicated a few things have become certain.

One of them is that the RUC can’t and won’t fully replace the state gas tax to finance highway projects for at least 10 years due to existing bond obligations. Richter said that the last bonds issued for the 2015 Connecting Washington transportation package won’t be for another 10 years, and those bonds will go for 25 years.

Another certainty is that RUC enforcement will remain one of the top challenges for implementation, possibly by the state Department of Licensing.

Among the issues left to be decided is what tracking methods drivers will use or be allowed to use, ranging from nonintrusive permits to smartphone apps. Although some of the options raise less privacy concerns, they are problematic when differentiating out-of-state mileage.

On the flip side, high-tech devices like smartphones can track those miles but also makes  fraud easier. The report noted that “more work is required in the area of compliance and enforcement before RUC can be widely-deployed as a replacement for the state’s gas tax.”

“The Portland-Vancouver metro area presents a unique challenge to implement,” Doyle said. “You (could) send your phone on a bus or in someone else’s car to Florida and back and claim that you are driving out of state.”

A possible recommendation by WSTC is for the state to adopt a gradual RUC rate as the state gas tax is phased out, which would also allow state officials to finetune enforcement methods. Another route for the WTSC is to pursue a Forward Drive federal grant proposal to work with other states exploring RUCS on collection cost-reduction.

Yet the discussion about replacing the state gas tax has prompted talk about equity with a possible RUC fee. While the state gas tax rate is the same regardless of the driver or vehicle type, the report noted the RUC is “more flexible in its ability to harmonize with (or reflect) other public policy goals.” A potential recommendation by the WSTC would explore different RUC rates “based on driver, vehicle, or infrastructure characteristics.”

Doyle noted one issue raised by pilot program participants is that vehicle weight and emission levels were not factored into the RUC.

Another significant policy change that remains up in the air is whether RUC revenue should have similar restrictions imposed on it like the state gas tax. Under the state constitution, gas tax money can only be spent on highway projects.

Although the report’s potential recommendations are framed around maintaining that protection for RUC revenue, the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) has sought a “broader use” of that money. WTSC Executive Director Reema Griffith will be among the featured speakers at the Transportation Choices Coalition’s upcoming event on “potential future funding opportunities” for transit funding.

At the Oct. 15 meeting, Griffith said the commission could include a statement in the report that to broaden the use of RUC money at this time would provide even less funding for a state transportation system that is already underfunded. She added that the situation could change when “we’ve caught up and maybe there is sufficient revenue to consider other sharing opportunities. The legislature can’t bind future legislatures, absent a constitutional amendment if they did it in statue.”

The commission will approve the report at its Dec. 17 meeting.

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