The Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC) for eight years has studied the concept of a road usage charge (RUC) in which drivers pay a certain rate for every mile they drive. As directed by the state legislature in 2012, the purpose of an RUC would be to eventually replace the state gas tax as a source of highway funding – i.e., for road and bridge infrastructure. A key feature of the gas tax is that the revenue is constitutionally protected and can only be spent on state highway projects.
While the commission has previously voiced its support of maintaining that protection for an RUC, other regional agencies and elected officials view the transition as an opportunity to redirect some of the potential new revenue to transit. However, some transportation analysts say the divided narrative over future RUC revenue could make the concept an even tougher sell for Washingtonians than it already is.
More than a year before the commission’s December vote on RUC recommendations to the legislature, the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) approved an update to its regional transportation plan that included an RUC in its financial planning. PSRC is a regional planning organization formed in 1991 and encompasses King, Kitsap, Pierce, and Snohomish counties. The regional transportation plan covers long-range planning for a 20-30 year period and is updated every several years.
In addition to including an RUC, the latest update states that its revenues “are expected to be available to support not only transportation infrastructure investment, but also the provision of expanded transit service across the region.” This statement can be found in draft versions as early as July 2017 – a year before WSDTC’s RUC pilot project began.
The financial planning assumes a five percent share of RUC revenue starting after 2026, though it notes that legislative action would be required.
Is it significant that there is assumed RUC revenue for transit in PSRC planning documents? It depends on who you ask. PSRC Director of Government Relations & Communications Rick Olson previously represented the council on the WSTC’s RUC Steering Committee. He told Lens the planning updates are necessary to comply with federal requirements for transportation funds and described it as “a long-term plan that tries to look around corners in 20 years or more … to anticipate what the region’s needs are going to be.”
He added that the continual updates reflect changes in assumptions. “I think it’s a sincere effort to do the duty of planners, which is to consider the hard choices we’re going to face in the future and try to come up with reasonable ways to meet future transportation needs.”
In a follow-up email, Olson wrote that “there will be a lot for the legislature to sort through when and if they seriously consider a RUC. My sense is that the debate will be dominated by all the different forces that currently influence transportation policy in the state legislature, not what’s in PSRC’s long range plan.”
However, Washington Policy Center Transportation Director Mariya Frost told Lens that PSRC’s planning reflects the views of other regional agencies and elected officials regarding RUC revenue use – views that contradict WSTC’s mandate as directed by the legislature to replace the gas tax as a state transportation infrastructure funding source.
“It seems like it’s the commission against everyone else,” she said.
A March 2019 email by PSRC Regional Planning Senior Program Manager Ben Bakkenta obtained by Lens through a public records request states that “the policy discussion of mode eligibility for the use of those (RUC) funds has not yet occurred, but our region is on the record that some of these funds should be available to support transit projects. We see this as a significant first step in a possible transition to a different type of user fee-based system. Some progress is being made.”
“I think that generally that people have been supportive of the broad use of any new transportation tax that isn’t subject to the 18th amendment,” Olson said. “But we haven’t gone there yet.”
Prior to the commission’s December recommendations, it received a letter from the Seattle Department of Transportation and other organizations opposing constitutional protections for RUC revenue.
Also writing opposed to protecting RUC revenue is King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci, vice president of the PSRC’s Executive Board.
In an October 2017 memo to PSRC executive Board President Bruce Dammeier, Bakkenta wrote that “while relying on traditional funding sources in the early years of the plan, it is assumed that over time the region will transition to a new funding structure based on user fees.” Yet, he notes that “changes to transportation funding sources will likely require legislative action across a broad range of governments, including cities, counties, state and federal governments, and potentially voter approval.”
At the time PSRC’s regional transportation plan was being drafted, WSTC was represented on PSRC’s transportation policy board by Commissioner Hester Serebrin, a policy analyst at Transportation Choices Coalition (TCC) and the sole commissioner to vote against constitutionally protecting RUC revenue. According to PSRC’s bylaws, transportation policy board members are determined by their respective entities, typically every two years.
When the 2018 regional transportation plan was approved in April 2018, Serebrin had been replaced on the transportation policy board by Commissioner Shiv Batra, who was absent from that meeting. Batra did not respond to an interview request. The regional transportation plan was adopted by PSRC in May 2018.
At its Dec. 18 meeting, the commission received an update from PSRC staff on the council’s Vision 2050, but it was not informed that RUC revenue was assumed for transit use in the financial planning.
Frost said that “the commission needs to stand up for its reasonable policy recommendations and address conflicting recommendations from other transportation agencies and governments that make decisions on transportation policies.”
WSTC Executive Director Reema Griffith has previously cautioned against diverting state highway funding for transit, warning that the money will be needed to maintain roads that transit uses.
It’s an attitude shared by Senate Transportation Committee Chair Steve Hobbs (D-44), who is also a member of PSRC’s transportation policy board. He told Lens he supports WSTC’s recommendation to protect RUC revenue in a similar manner to the gas tax. “I know that I’m not entirely in the minority. I’m very concerned about the maintenance and preservation of our roads. We have to keep having to deal with that. There are ways to address multimodal (transit) funding out there. We just have to come up with different ideas.”
Regarding PSRC’s regional transportation plan assumptions for RUC revenue, he said “we live in a democratic society. I just hope people realize that roads need to be maintained, bridges need to be maintained. I’m one of many views on this particular subject. We still have to pass some kind of a policy bill to lay this all out.”
Echoing previous comments made by former House Transportation Committee chair Judy Clibborn (D-41), Frost argues that “the only way that a road usage charge is acceptable in Washington as a gas tax replacement is if it first and foremost has constitutional protection via constitutional amendment. Otherwise is it susceptible to abuse.”