The proposed $15 billion Forward Washington transportation package would also create a road usage charge (RUC) program for hybrid and electric vehicles starting in 2025. While some state officials support its inclusion and view it as an important step toward ultimately applying the program to all vehicles, others say questions remain regarding privacy concerns and revenue protection.
The Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC) has studied the RUC concept for several years, completing a pilot program in 2018. WSTC Executive Director Reema Griffith told Lens that although there’s also a separate Senate bill creating an RUC program, “tying it to the revenue proposal demonstrates the purpose of why they’re proposing it.” She noted that the program would apply to less than four percent of vehicles in the state.
“What’s being proposed in that language is a pretty long runway to a transition, and it starts very, very small,” she said. “It’s following a very deliberative, careful process that still enables for a lot of input and work to be done on the details of what the program will ultimately look like.”
However, Washington Policy Center Transportation Director Mariya Frost said the proposal should be kept separate. “It puts lawmakers in a position of having to vote up and down on a revenue package that contains a lot of large policy issues. A road usage charge is such a massive overhaul…it really deserves its own bill, its own debate, and opportunity for lawmakers to vote on that one single issue.”
Transitioning from a gas tax to an RUC carries implications for personal privacy. Forward Washington includes bill language regarding state use of personal data, stating that it can be disclosed in aggregate form as long it doesn’t contain any personally identifying information.
Yet, Frost says that “anonymous data” may not be as anonymous as it seems, citing a California lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union describing how people can still be identified using anonymized location data. She said that the legislature should wait until ongoing research by Forward Drive on privacy and other RUC-related issues is completed.
While Global Positioning System (GPS) devices could be used to track miles driven, Griffith said “the Commission wants drivers to have a choice. It’s going to be critical that drivers have an option for a non-GPS approach. It’s going to be a balance in that regard. Technology and other approaches are going to emerge and give drivers the best of both worlds.”
Regarding the bill language on personal data protection, she said it’s a “good start. We’ve got a few years to continue to do research and see what other states are doing, what the federal government does. I can’t believe we can’t be ready by 2025.”
Another big debate within RUC discussion is whether the new revenue should be constitutionally protected the same way gas tax revenue currently is under the 18th Amendment. That amendment stipulates that revenue can only be spent on highway projects, while transit advocates and some state and local policymakers want more flexibility with RUC money.
Washington Trucking Association Vice President Sheri Call noted that the bill language hints at broader uses, with the “goal of creating a more dynamic and equitable funding system that could potentially incorporate additional policy priorities than the current transportation funding system.” The bill also calls for “specific recommendations to better align the system with other vehicle-related charges and potentially establish the framework for broader implementation of a per mile funding system, including analysis of the preferred method for addressing 18th amendment restriction considerations.”
“We feel the road usage charges are coming, and I knew this might be an opportunity to phase it in,” Call said. “I think our members’ concerns at this point is whether the resulting revenue will have 18th amendment protections. That’s a priority for us with any kind of roadway funding or road usage charge.”