Although the trucking industry isn’t included in Washington state’s ongoing exploration of a road usage charge (RUC) program as an eventual replacement for the state gas tax, state officials say heavy trucks will inevitably get added as diesel engine efficiency improves. A new study by the Eastern Transportation Coalition (ETC) exploring the effect of an RUC on trucking offers some conclusions that may help guide RUC policy.
One is to avoid a single, flat rate for all vehicles and that instead, the trucking rate should account for the industry’s unique regulatory and fee structure. The study examined 50 tractor-trailers over a year and a half period as they traveled 1.4 million miles across 27 states. Coalition Executive Director Patricia Hendren said in a statement that an RUC needs to take “into account the full picture of the transportation taxes and fees paid by the trucking industry.”
The Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC)’s work on an RUC since 2012, including its recent pilot project, has focused only on vehicles under 10,000 lbs. Even with heavy trucking excluded, state officials and legislators have grappled with numerous questions regarding implementation, data security, tracking methods and what rate to set. Those lingering issues are what caused House legislators to push the pause button on a Senate proposal this year that would create an RUC program for electric and hybrid vehicles.
WSTC Executive Director Reema Griffith told Lens that while the current RUC work aims to replace gas tax revenue expected to drop in the coming years, she said more efficient diesel engines will inevitably require replacing that revenue as well.
“We know it’s not an if but when,” she said. “A very small shift in the fleet…will result in a much more magnified impact to our state transportation funding than that same small shift in the passenger fleet. The industry is motivated to make these shifts, because it’s good for the environment but it’s also good for their bottom line.”
However, the study warns that “changes to transportation funding mechanisms should not result in adding another level of complexity or reverting from earlier improvements.”
Shifting to an RUC could also spark a debate over trucking’s financial contributions to road maintenance and repair. According to a WSTC survey, some respondents felt “that larger trucks and vehicles with studded tires damage the roads disproportionately and add to road maintenance costs.”
Yet, Washington Trucking Association Executive Director Sheri Call told Lens that truckers pay 32 percent of taxes owed despite composing just eight percent of miles traveled on Washington roads. “We’ve always been accused of not paying our fair share,“ a charge she called “absolute garbage.”
An RUC program for trucking would also face the same logistical hurdles as light passenger vehicles: how to track miles driven by residents out of state and track out-of-state residents driving in the state.
“I think inner jurisdiction is not just an issue for cars, but for commercial trucks,” Call said.
Right now, the trucking industry has also addressed this issue with the International Fuel Tax Agreement (IFTA) between the 48 continental states and Canada in which miles in each jurisdiction are tracked and used to determine taxes owed.
“We’re already paying a user-based fee,” Call said. “Commercial trucks are probably ahead of the curve tracking miles and paying based on where those miles are logged.”
For that reason, she said for now she’s in favor of maintaining the current tax system. “It’s a fair way to tax our industry. It’s a low cost of collections.”
Griffith said the IFTA has served as inspiration for the cloud-based RUC hub system developed for the WSTC’s pilot program that included out-of-state participants. “The idea is that it’s designed in a way with our pilot where any state could snap onto it at any time. We did it in a way where we wanted to make sure states could easily join it, but they weren’t bound by some assumption around who collects the data.”
She added that the hub could help avoid “a patchwork of states coming on and bringing their RUC systems up in isolation” if a federal RUC system isn’t created.
While the ETC is planning a six month pilot project starting in October, WSTC last month received a grant to continue working on RUC implementation challenges such as reducing revenue collection costs and addressing potential inequities for rural drivers. Griffith said that technological developments could offer new mileage reporting methods previously unknown or unavailable.
At the same time, she says implementing a small-scale RUC program as proposed this year is another important step toward finding solutions. “It’s going to really enable us to learn in a real context. We need to do that to get our feet wet before we continue to refine and learn.”