The Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC) voted at its Dec. 17 meeting to approve recommendations to the state legislature regarding a proposed road usage charge (RUC) as an eventual replacement for the state gas tax.
The 16 recommendations that were initially approved at the commissions’ Oct. 15 meeting call for further exploration of an RUC and a slow, gradual adoption phase beginning with electric and hybrid cars. However, the commission noted that more improvements are needed “before pursuing any wider statewide implementation.”
Most notably, the commission also voted in favor of restricting RUC revenue to highway project funding the same way the gas tax money is constrained under the 18th Amendment to the state constitution. While the other recommendations were approved collectively, the constitutional restriction was voted on separately. Although all but one of the commissioners voiced support, some observers say it may foreshadow a much larger fight in the legislature over how revenue can be spent if and when state lawmakers decide to adopt an RUC.
Opposed to protecting RUC revenue was WSTC Commissioner Hester Serebrin, a policy analyst at Transportation Choices Coalition (TCC) who moderated a TCC event in October titled “Let’s make it rain money for transit!” Organizations such as TCC favor broader use of RUC revenue to fund transit projects.
Among the panelists at the TCC event was WSTC Executive Director Reema Griffith, who cautioned against diverting existing revenue from roads. “Roads are needed for everybody, including buses. I think we have to get away from divisively talking about things to saying ‘How do we fund our multimodal needs and ensure that our infrastructure, which is the backbone of the economy, is also in place’. We can’t let the roads crumple and enhance transit. I think rather than take away from roads, we need to think about what we are not doing for multimodal investments.”
Prior to the Dec. 17 meeting, the commission received a letter from the Seattle Department of Transportation and a joint letter from various environmental organizations such as Climate Solutions, Futurewise and The Nature Conservancy in Washington opposing constitutional protections for RUC revenue.
Opponents also include King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci, who wrote in a letter to the commission that “limiting what projects can be funded via state transportation dollars constrains the solutions available to solve the mobility challenges that many regions in Washington state face.”
However, Vice Chair Roy Jennings argued that to not adopt the recommendation would go outside the directive from the legislature to find a replacement for the gas tax. “If you’re going to replace the gas tax, it has to be apple to apple, not apple to orange. By not putting this under the 18th, you are in fact trying to change the constitution of Washington or our mandate from the legislature.”
The recommendations are based in part off the findings of a pilot project conducted last year that involved 2,000 participants from around the state. As part of the project, drivers used a variety of tracking methods ranging from an odometer reading to a smart phone app. One of the challenges for any potential RUC program is that each method has an advantage and disadvantage. Odometer readings are simple and less intrusive than a GPS device but can’t separate in-state and out-of-state driving.
One of the participants was Washington Policy Center Transportation Director Mariya Frost. She told Lens that the commission’s recommendations represent “a step in the right direction, but it will be up to the legislature to decide what to do with those.”
She added that the separate vote on the revenue protection “demonstrates at least to me what an uphill battle it may be keep the road usage charge as a true user fee rather than a subsidy for various political priorities.”
Some testifying during the public comment period took a less positive view of the recommendations, including initiative sponsor and gubernatorial candidate Tim Eyman. He told the commission that “this is not a replacement tax; this is an additional tax. It is disrespectful, disfavored and just plain wrong.” He added that to consider an RUC is “ignoring the people’s voices” due to the passage of Initiative 976 during the Nov. 5 election.