A trio of Senate Democrats have introduced a bill creating an initial road user charge (RUC) program for electric and hybrid vehicles to begin in 2024. SB 6586, sponsored by Senate Transportation Vice Chair Rebecca Saldaña (D-37) and cosponsored by Senate Transportation Chair Steve Hobbs (D-44) and Majority Floor Leader Marko Liias (D-21), incorporates numerous recommendations made in a December report by the Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC).
The legislation gives WSDTC and the state Department of Licensing (DOL) flexibility to craft a program under certain criteria, though the actual RUC rates would still be set by the legislature.
“Overall our general feeling is we’re just thrilled they introduced something,” WSTC Executive Director Reema Griffith said. “We’ve couched this as an opportunity to continue to learn in a real way. The research and pilot program told us a lot of things, but there’s nothing like the real thing when people are paying real money.”
Among the commission’s recommendations in its December report was to phase-in an RUC, starting first with electric vehicles that pay a fee in lieu of the state gas tax. The report also cautioned that further improvements are necessary to fully implement an RUC program, such as ensuring data security and resolving issues with out of state driving.
Under SB 6586, the commission and DOL would develop an RUC plan by December 2021 and begin implementing it by January 2024. The plan would offer different mileage reporting options and recommended fee rates to achieve in part “minimal administrative cost.” The commission and DOL would have the option of including a broader framework to eventually incorporate gas vehicles into the RUC system, which would involve “the preferred method” for addressing constitutional restrictions on state gas revenue. Under the 18th Amendment to the state constitution, gas tax money can only be used “for highway purposes.” At its Dec. 17 meeting, all but one WSTC member recommended those constitutional protections remain in place for RUC revenue.
Griffith said the RUC would provide potential opportunities to further examine how to track cross-state travel with Oregon, which has created its own program. The Utah state legislature recently enacted its own RUC, as well.
“This whole out of state traffic issue we know is going to be one of the challenges,” Griffith said.
If implemented, electric vehicle drivers pay a rate of $.035 per mile, while hybrid vehicle drivers would pay $.02 per mile. The existing electric vehicle fee would be repealed. The RUC would only apply to electric or hybrid vehicles capable of driving 35 miles per hour or more. All revenue would be deposited into the motor vehicle account.
Skeptics of the bill include pilot program participant and Washington Policy Center Transportation Director Mariya Frost. “I don’t think Washington state is ready for a road usage charge, which is likely not to be a user fee, but another tax given our political climate.”
Among her concerns is that the electric and hybrid per-mile rates are different than in the pilot program, which was $.024. “The way that these rates are just put into this bill is very concerning to me. It is why we have been very skeptical that the tested rate, which is revenue neutral…would stay the same. Lawmakers can literally make up a per-mile rate without explanation.”
While a 2018 report to the Washington Road Usage Charge Steering Committee declined to examine whether the RUC would constitute a tax or fee, it noted that “how a legislature sets a rate for either a tax or fee tends not to be defined in law. Often political negotiation enters the rate setting process and can have a major impact on the outcome.”
Although the commission would serve in a “policy role” within the RUC program, the authority to set rates under the bill would remain within legislative purview as it is with the state gas tax. Griffith said this reflects the attitude of legislators on the steering committee that the RUC would serve as a gas tax replacement.
“(They) made it pretty clear that they saw the rate-setting function being similar,” she said.
No further action is scheduled for SB 6586 at this time.