Debate continues over road usage charge

Debate continues over road usage charge
SB 6586 would create a per-mile road user charge for electric and hybrid vehicles, which some see as a stepping stone to a larger program encompassing all vehicles at some point in the future. Designed by fanjianhua / Freepik

Although state gas tax revenue used to fund state highways has remained stable, state lawmakers behind SB 6586 say now is the time to start planning for its replacement. The bill allows the Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC) and the state Department of Licensing to set up a road usage charge (RUC) program for electric and hybrid vehicles, with rates of $.035 and $.02 per mile respectively.

“Our roads need to be maintained,” said Chair Steve Hobbs (D-44), one of the bill cosponsors. “We’re $1 billion behind on road preservation. There has to be a way to pay for it, and hopefully this is a fair way of doing (it). Hopefully we have a system that will work.”

However, the proposal brings with it debate over constitutional protection for RUC revenue similar to that restrictions placed on gas tax revenue. Another matter raised by legislators and testifiers at a Jan. 29 public hearing in the Senate Transportation Committee is how the rates and payment process would be set.

Sponsor and Transportation Vice Chair Rebecca Saldaña (D-37) said the bill is “a starting point piece of legislation. I think as we go to (full) scale that’s going to be very costly to do all that. If we’re going to eventually over decades move towards this, we want to make sure that we get the kinks out.”

The biggest point of contention among the bill’s supporters and critics is whether the revenue should be dedicated solely to state highway projects – and what kind of measures should ensure that doesn’t change. As written, SB 6586 deposits all RUC revenue into the motor vehicle fund, which can only be spent on highway projects.

However, Sen. Phil Fortunato (R-31) noted that “that does not prevent future legislation to move it out.”

Committee staff member Bryan Moore said that a constitutional amendment could provide further protection “if you wanted that level of certainty.”

The WSTC last month voted in favor of maintaining protection for RUC money, a stance also promoted at the public hearing by the Association of Washington Business (AWB) Government Policy Director Mike Ennis as well as Jerry Vanderwood with the Associated General Contractors of Washington.

Vanderwood told legislators: “this is not cradle-to-grave protection through the 18th Amendment, so with the first step out of the blocks with the RUC we would like to address that.”

However, Hobbs noted that enacting a constitutional amendment protecting RUC money would be a “high bar.”

Stakeholders such as Bryce Yadon with Transportation Choices Coalition advocated for flexible use of RUC money. “We’re talking about a holistic transportation system. We should be moving towards…funding sources that creates that system.”

However, Ranking Member Curtis King (R-14) remarked that “if the bridge isn’t there, public transportation isn’t going to do you any good. If the road’s a piece of garbage, that bus isn’t going to hold up, either.”

Aside from data protection and user privacy, one challenge for a RUC program will be implementation costs vastly higher than necessary for a gas tax. King noted that while the bill “gives us an opportunity to start having conversations about this on a legislative level,” he added that one of the goals should be to reduce administrative costs. “No offense to anybody, but when government tells me it’s going to be 10-12 (percent), it’s probably going to be 15-18 (percent).”

No further action is scheduled for SB 6886.

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