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Heir to the gas tax throne?
There’s been a lot of focus on current legislative bills designed to provide more – and more flexible –revenue options for local transportation needs. However, recently we’ve been intrigued by an interesting idea for raising revenue that hasn’t yet made it to the legislative floor.
Washington State is currently considering implementing a road usage fee, which would charge drivers for their time or distance traveled rather than through a gas tax at the pump. In the 2012 session, legislators appropriated $1 million dollars for the Washington State Department of Transportation and the Washington State Transportation Commission to work with a 20-member Steering Committee to both determine the feasibility of transitioning from the gas tax to a road user assessment system and assess the operational feasibility of such a system. In January of this year, the Steering Committee presented their Feasibility Assessment, Work Plan and Budget Report to the legislature. Below, a primer on this promising policy.
Why a Road Usage Charge?
Road usage charging is gaining traction as a replacement for or supplement to the gas tax. Last year the GAO released a report lauding mileage-based user fee as an “equitable and efficient use of roadways,” and as of this year, general road usage charging has been studied and subjected to pilot tests in almost 20 states.
But increased revenue is only one of the benefits of road usage charging. As fuel efficiency improves, the link between gas tax paid and amount driven becomes more tenuous. By charging by the mile or minute, the road usage charge creates a direct incentive to drive fewer miles, influencing the demand for transportation, decreasing congestion and vehicle emissions.
Of course, the charge-per-mile system could be argued to penalize those with long commutes. Those who drive to and from rural areas may indeed pay more in road usage fees than those that live and work in denser urban centers. However, long-distance commuters are also likely already paying more in gas taxes to fill their tanks for the long ride. Road usage charges at least have the benefit of not punishing lower income households who own older cars. Because older vehicles are typically less fuel-efficient, their drivers may travel the same or fewer miles as those with higher incomes while spending more on gas – and paying more in gas taxes.
The simplest kind of road usage charge uses the following formula:
Rate Based on Vehicle Classification X Usage = Road Usage Charge
In this general scenario, rates could vary by vehicle depending number of axles, vehicle size, or type (e.g. hybrid, diesel, etc.), or a combination of the above.
Usage can be measured by time (e.g. engine run time or a flat pass purchased for a particular period of time) or distance (e.g. odometer reading or computations from GPS). Again, depending on the policy, the charge may be assessed using one or more of these factors.
More advanced road usage charging systems may also account for level of congestion (by charging more during peak times or in specific areas) or environmental factors (say, by measuring actual emissions) when assessing rates.
Based on these factors, the Steering Committee came up with eight different operational concepts, which they then evaluated based on a wide variety of feasibility criteria ranging from convenience to transparency to flexibility. Note that this evaluation exercise wasn’t intended to guide the committee towards a top pick, but rather to lay out the landscape of possibilities.
It was this landscape of possibilities that the Steering Committee presented to the legislature in January. While they didn’t propose a specific operational concept, the committee members “unanimously agreed that road usage charging is feasible in Washington and recommended further assessment and advancement.” But “whether or not it makes sense and is desirable for Washington State,” hedged the report, “will require additional work.” And that additional work has a price tag. The report requested $1.6 million in the 2013-15 biennium to carry out tasks of the first phase of work laid out in budget section. If approved, the committee would move forward on Phase 1, which includes public engagement, defining policy objectives, detailing technical requirements, developing a business case, and more.
You can find all the relevant documents and read more about the Steering Committee on their website.