A pilot program aimed at researching a possible replacement to the state’s gas tax was presented to the Bellevue City Council on Monday, Sept. 24, in order to get feedback and take questions.
Reema Griffith, executive director of the Washington State Transportation Commission, gave the council an overview of the Road Usage Charge (RUC) pilot program that began earlier this year. The RUC is part of ongoing research to find a replacement for the gas tax in order to find a reliable sustainable way to fund road and infrastructure projects.
With the fuel efficiency bar rising, more vehicles becoming more fuel efficient, and the growing popularity of hybrid and electric vehicles, gas tax revenue is flat year over year and is projected to decline in revenue in future years, Griffith said.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts all new cars by 2040 will average 48 miles per gallon and all cars new and old would average 37 miles per gallon, Griffith said. She also noted that those figures are conservative predictions. She presented state forecasts showing a potential 45-percent reduction in revenue brought in by the gas tax by 2035.
As a way to find another method to fund infrastructure and road projects, the Washington State Transporation Commission began the RUC pilot program to trial the revenue generation of charging drivers per-mile of road usage, rather than taxing a gas purchase. The goal is to create an equitable structure that is sustainable over the long term.
The pilot has 2,000 participants throughout the state with 6 percent in Northeast Washington, 60 percent in the Central Puget Sound, 6 percent in Southeast Washington, 13 percent in Central Washington and 13 percent in Eastern Washington.
The pilot has five methods of tracking road usage, two of which are not technology based, Griffith said. The non-technology options are a prepaid mileage permit which would allow the driver to purchase a block of miles, or quarterly odometer readings. The other three options are a smartphone app to track a driver’s road usage through GPS, a plug-in GPS option that connects to the car’s OBD-II port that tracks road usage in and out of the state, and another plug-in option without GPS that does not track location but only total miles traveled.
The plug-in device with GPS was the most popular choice with participants at 34 percent. The odometer reading followed close behind at 29 percent, followed by the plug-in without GPS, the smartphone app, and the mileage permit.
Some of the tests during the pilot program included cross border testing into British Columbia, who are also looking at road charge options as well. There is also a cash transaction test between Washington and Oregon to see how the payments of cross border travel would be reconciled between the two states. A small number of citizens in Idaho participated in cross state testing as well.
In 2015 the commission received $3.8 million for design, setup and recruitment of participants. In 2016, they received an additional $4.6 million for the operation of the pilot program, evaluation, and reporting that will happen once complete.
Washington is not the first to begin research in the field. Griffith said eight other states are conducting research. Oregon has more than 10 years of experience with the charge and it is the only state in the country with a legislatively-enacted program that allows 5,000 Oregon citizens to opt-in to pay the RUC instead of a gas tax.
Griffith said the RUC still has a number of policy and equity issues that need to be worked out, and considerations must be made for the increase in overhead costs required to collect the charge. The commission did determine that the RUC would outperform the gas tax over a 20-year period at an equivalent rate of 2.4 cents, which is being tested in the pilot, she said.
The pilot is scheduled to conclude in February 2019, after which the transportation commission will do nine months of data analysis and wrap up. The commission also will conduct a statewide survey of drivers to see where people are at in the outreach and education campaign. A report will go to the Legislature, U.S. Department of Transportation, and Governor by January 2020, with findings and recommendations, Griffith said.
For more on the pilot project, visit www.waroadusagecharge.org.