Alternative to gas tax should be explored

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As technology improves, a day will come when vehicles powered by internal-combustion engines become a rarity.

And when that day comes, funding for transportation in Washington state will have diminished. Right now, gasoline tax is used for the construction of roads, bridges and other infrastructure needs.

Gas tax collections are already starting to decline. As more and more cars become fuel efficient and with more electric cars on the road, a state study predicts a 10 percent drop in revenue between next year and 2040. A private study sees a far more dramatic reduction — close to 30 percent in that same time period.

In addition to the loss of tax dollars, the issue of fairness must also be addressed. Those driving electric cars or hybrids are not paying their fair share of road maintenance.

At this point, the state’s main focus should be tax revenue and fairness.

A task force convened by the Washington state Transportation Commission has been looking at alternative taxes. The task force is releasing its findings this month.

Replacing the gas tax with a “road-usage charge” would help ensure drivers pay their fair share regardless of their car’s power source or gas mileage, according to the report. Charging drivers by the mile or for a fixed time period would cost more to collect than the gas tax but would reap more in proceeds over the long haul, the report said.

Whatever is decided, it should be phased in and include the eventual elimination of the gas tax.

The Tacoma News Tribune reported that the commission is set to wrap up the final stage of planning for shifting the tax revenue source.

“We need to look forward to how we’re going to fund transportation,” said Senate Transportation Committee Co-Chairwoman Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, “and the road usage — you use the road, you pay for the road — makes sense to me.”

Exactly how all this work, or how well it will work, is not known.

The Washington report looks at three options, which could be mixed or used separately. They are:

• A flat fee for using a vehicle with no relationship to road use.

• A miles-traveled charge based on an odometer reading. (This, however, would result in miles driven out of state being taxed.)

• A miles-traveled charge based on information from a smartphone or other GPS-enabled device tracked by the state or its contractor. This concept has, and rightly so, prompted concerns from civil libertarians concerned mileage meters could track and record residents’ every vehicular move.

Oregon is already working on the idea of moving beyond a gas tax and is planning to launch a pilot project this year with 5,000 volunteers.

Washington state should monitor Oregon’s program while it develops its own program.

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