A graphic outlining the locations of the 2,000 people who participated in the pilot program. Courtesy Image

A graphic outlining the locations of the 2,000 people who participated in the pilot program. Courtesy Image

City council weighs in on potential gas tax replacement

The council heard and then responded to results from a Road Usage Charge Pilot project.

At an Oct. 28 extended study session, the Bellevue City Council was updated on a Road Usage Charge (RUC) Pilot project that began at the beginning of 2018 and ended in January 2019.

Currently, there is a statewide gas tax of 49.4 cents per gallon. The purpose of the pilot was to see if it might be preferable to replace the tax with an RUC program. RUC programs typically charge drivers based on how many miles they’ve traveled rather than the fuel they’ve used.

According to the agenda item, a key component of consideration has to do with the fact that, as vehicles become increasingly fuel-efficient and electric vehicles become more popular, gas tax revenue remains flat while transportation needs continue to grow. The 49.4-cent tax, as of 2019, funds key transportation infrastructure and highway projects. This year, Bellevue is on track to receive about $3 million in revenue from the tax.

An RUC as a possible replacement for the gas tax has been a topic of interest since 2012. That year, the state legislature directed the Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC) to work with a steering committee and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) to find out whether the change was feasible.

For the 12-month pilot, participants tested out a 2.4-cent-per-mile charge. This number is the state’s average miles per gallon (20 mpg) divided by the current state gas tax amount. The pilot tested the RUC program, according to the city’s website, on non-commercial, lightweight vehicles. The program simulated how a real-life system would function and assumed revenue neutrality.

“It was more about doing an apples to apples comparison of road usage charging against gas tax to determine the viability of it, the feasibility, and whether or not frankly it pencils in a business case for there to be such a transition over time,” Reema Griffith, executive director of the WSTC, said.

According to the meeting’s agenda item, it isn’t known what the long-term impacts would be if an RUC were to be installed, and is dependent on legislative action in the future.

The pilot program lasted a year and tracked 2,000 test drivers. Four mileage-reporting options were used, including a general odometer reading and a “Milemapper” beta smartphone app that was developed with the University of Washington. To ensure there were no technical glitches during the pilot period, multiple rounds of system-testing were held before the 12-month stretch.

Findings

According to the presentation at the Oct. 28 meeting, the average vehicle mpg among the pilot’s participants was 23.1, which is slightly higher than the 20.5 state average. Fully electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles drove 31 percent and 18 percent less than participating gas-powered vehicles, respectively. The finding, according to the presentation, implies that electric-vehicle owners would wind up paying less than their gas-powered-vehicle counterparts if under a flat fee RUC system.

Participants took three surveys — one at the beginning, middle and end of the study period — over 12 months. It was found that ultimately 91 percent of users were either satisfied or very satisfied with the experience. The final survey showed that 71.6 percent of participants were somewhat-to-strongly supportive of replacing the gas tax with an RUC — an increase from the 50.5 percent of support shown during the first survey. Forty-eight percent of participants were more supportive of an RUC after their participation; 61 percent spoke in favor of an RUC implementation.

“We have a very large percentage of drivers, at least in the pilot, saying that they thought some kind of transition should start within at least a five- to 10-year period, if not sooner,” Griffith said.

Ultimately, 53 percent of users at the end of the pilot said they would prefer an RUC that resulted in drivers paying by the mile.

Recommendations

The WSTC provided 15 preliminary recommendations for potential next steps after reviewing the pilot’s findings report, courtesy of the steering committee, in October.

Some recommendations include a slow and gradual transition into an RUC enaction; privacy-protecting RUC-specific measures that would be spelled out in state law; subjecting an RUC to the state constitution’s 18th amendment (the Constitution’s amendment governing gas tax and license fees); and continue looking into impacts on equity.

Recommendations will be officially adopted by the WSTC at its Dec. 17 meeting.

Councilmembers had several questions about the pilot and its wider implications at the Oct. 28 meeting, including inquiries about potential changes the pilot’s 2.4-cent rate, 18th amendment involvement, revenue collection, how the transition would unfold and more.

Councilmember Jennifer Robertson brought up that the system of mileage recording could pose difficulties if contingent on technological savvy.

“For those who are addicted to our smartphones, it’s a snap,” Robertson said. “But that is not 100 percent of people driving.”

Mayor John Chelminiak noted that the council would likely need to return to the topic over several sessions in order to produce a finalized interest statement.

“I think we definitely have some time to wade into this,” he said.

Joyce Nichols, Bellevue’s director of intergovernmental relations, echoed Chelminiak’s interest in talking more about the RUC down the road.

“I would recommend this as a multi-session conversation,” Nichols said at the end of the meeting. “It seems like we want to put a little box around what we do right now and respond to recommendations.”

For more information about the pilot and its background, go to the meeting agenda item (https://bit.ly/32cFekN). To see the pilot presentation in full, go online to https://bit.ly/2PJsxLE. To watch the entire discussion at the Oct. 28 meeting, go to the city of Bellevue’s website (https://bit.ly/2rdEX4n).

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