Charging drivers by the mile rather than by the gallon: State transportation officials to test the idea.

As cars become more fuel efficient, the gas tax becomes less revenue robust. The Seattle Times reports state transportation officials are considering alternatives.

Next year the Washington State Department of Transportation expects gas-tax revenues to rise by 0.9 percent. It expects its construction costs to increase by 2.6 percent.

The year after, it expects gas-tax revenue to increase by 0.7 percent. It expects construction costs to increase by 2.7 percent.

Same story the year after that: Gas-tax revenue up 0.6 percent, construction costs up 3.1 percent.

Here’s an alternative.

Beginning early next year, the state will start a pilot project in which 2,000 volunteers pay a mock tax on the number of miles they drive on Washington state roads, rather than on the amount of gas they use…

[Reema Griffith, director of the Transportation Commission] stresses that a road-usage charge would replace the gas tax, not be in addition to it.

Participants in the upcoming pilot study won’t be paying actual money yet, but the planned rate is 2.4 cents per mile, which equates to the current gas-tax rate for a car with average gas mileage.

They’ll have a variety of options to “pay” the tax: By sending in pictures of their odometer or having it read at a Department of Licensing office, by using a smartphone app to track miles, or by plugging a mileage meter into their car.

Other states, including California and Oregon, are also looking at the mileage charge. A California pilot program that ended in March 2017 found general participant satisfaction.

The California Road Charge Pilot Program officially concluded on March 31, 2017! After a nine-month study involving over 5,000 vehicles statewide, we have successfully completed the largest road charge pilot of its kind…

  • 90% say they would participate in another road charge program
  • 85% were satisfied with the overall pilot
  • 78% were satisfied with the security of their data
  • 73% agree that road charge is more fair than a gas tax
  • 61% were very satisfied with the concept of road charging

The Times reports on the Oregon pilot,

Oregon already has about 1,000 volunteers who are actually paying a road-usage tax, using a mileage meter instead of paying the gas tax.

It’s unclear how well Washingtonians will take to the road-usage tax. The Times reports,

…the push for a road-usage charge to replace the gas tax — “to impose a tax on every mile you drive,” as the Washington Policy Center, a conservative think tank, put it — may be an uphill battle.

A June poll, conducted in advance of the pilot program, found that 58 percent of respondents opposed a road-usage charge in Washington.

The Policy Center report concluded:

Most people recognize and agree that mobility, and the road construction and maintenance that it requires, is the key to economic strength and security. People are willing to pay gas taxes and fees if they trust the public will receive a real bene t in return. In Washington, this public-trust model has not worked, as taxpayers have been told repeatedly to pay more and more into a system that fails to improve their mobility. e Road Usage Charge is yet another one of those requests.

A better approach would be for public o cials to solve the problem of policies that add arti cial costs to transportation projects. Only a er transportation spending is consistently devoted to congestion relief, and construction costs have been contained, would it make any sense for public o cials to seek additional revenue.

If transportation o cials reduce costs and stop diverting much of the money they collect from drivers to non-highway purposes, public con dence would grow, allowing bold policy initiatives and infrastructure that improves mobility for everyone.

As our state continues to search for ways to improve transportation infrastructure and mobility – our Connect priority – the results of the WSDOT pilot will provide useful information to policymakers.