Next year, some Oregon drivers will start paying a cent and a half for every mile they drive — rather than a 30-cent tax on every gallon of gas they pump. Washington, while far behind, has quietly been inching down the same road.
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 a report this month from a Washington task force that includes the Legislature’s transportation budget writers.
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, according to the task force convened by the Transportation Commission.
The commission is poised for the final stage of planning for what could be a major shift in transportation financing.
State lawmakers would have to sign off on any change, and they won’t decide for a while. House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, said a pilot project could get going in 2016 or perhaps as soon as late 2015.
“We need to look forward to how we’re going to fund transportation,” Senate Transportation Committee Co-Chairwoman Tracey Eide said, “and the road usage — you use the road, you pay for the road — makes sense to me.”
As a short-term solution to traffic bottlenecks, the road usage charge is unlikely to trump the gas tax. Lawmakers are in their second year of debate on whether to raise the gas tax a dime or so per gallon to pay for projects such as extending state Route 167 to the Port of Tacoma.
But the use of gasoline is expected to fall as cars become more fuel efficient. Gas-tax revenue has hit a plateau, and the state expects it to drop roughly 10 percent between 2015 and 2040. A forecast by a private company is even gloomier, with 2040 estimates that are 28 percent lower than the state’s.
After more than $1.4 million worth of studying and planning, the task force says a road-usage charge is feasible and a business case has been made for it.
The Transportation Commission is asking the Legislature for another $869,000 for the next stage of study that would fill in details, answer some big remaining questions and start planning for a changeover or small-scale experiment.
Transportation budget writers said it’s worth a closer look.
“It’s not going to be this year that we look at that (as a revenue source), and my guess is it probably won’t be next year,” said Curtis King, a member of the task force and a Yakima Republican who co-chairs the Senate transportation panel with Des Moines Democrat Eide.
“But I think we have to really find a solution because I firmly believe the gas tax is not sustainable for the long term.”
How it would work
The report narrowed the options down to three kinds of charges, or a combination of them:
• A flat fee for using a vehicle for a month, a year or some other time period. It would be simple and easy to enforce, but would have no relationship to road use.
• A miles-traveled charge based on an odometer reading. That would zero in on the amount of driving, but still wouldn’t differentiate between in-state and out-of-state travel.
• A miles-traveled charge based on information from a smart phone or other gizmo with GPS capabilities, beamed to the government or a private contractor. It would avoid the problems of the other two mechanisms, but would be harder to enforce and might strike some drivers as a privacy infringement.
The task force might call for letting drivers choose among the three mechanisms.
“Providing choices is a much more acceptable way of moving forward,” said Tom Cowan, a transportation commissioner and leader of the task force.
Cowan said a device or smartphone application might simply track mileage or could be more detailed, allowing the state to charge different rates for, say, rural roads and urban streets.
The task force’s report assumed the state gas tax would remain at 371/2 cents through 2040, and that the new charge would be set at a rate designed to raise the same amount of revenue as the gas tax in its first year — roughly $1 billion. If lawmakers have passed a gas-tax increase by then for new projects, the new charge would presumably be set higher to match it.
Revenue from the new system would then be projected to grow, in contrast to declining gas tax receipts. If all three of the proposed mechanisms were offered, it would raise an estimated $1.9 billion more than the gas tax over 25 years.
Oregon is setting the pace nationally for a road-usage system. After more than a decade of study and experimentation and millions of dollars spent, the state will start a voluntary program in 2015.
Five thousand volunteer Oregon drivers will start paying 1.5 cents per mile and get a rebate on their gas taxes. They will have a choice of systems, including at least one with no global-positioning system.
A Washington state spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union said the group hasn’t examined what’s under consideration by the Transportation Commission but has privacy concerns about the government tracking where people are going.
Advocates for the system said a choice of options should allay privacy concerns.
One lawmaker suggested gas guzzlers could be charged at a different rate from, say, electric cars.
Unanswered is whether and how out-of-state drivers would be charged. Charging them might not be cost-effective.
There are enough uncertainties to make Rep. Ed Orcutt, another member of the task force, question the whole concept.
“I really wonder, can they even address those, or is it just better to look at: do we just need to make an adjustment in the amount of tax,” said Orcutt, R-Kalama.
Orcutt noted that the report found it would take as little as a 2-cent-a-gallon increase in gas tax in 2015 to achieve the same total revenue over 25 years.
But that 25-year total obscures the fact that the gas tax would bring in less and less each year, leaving a potential need for either incremental gas-tax increases or a huge gas-tax increase in 2040.