Washington Launches Mock Mileage Tax Pilot

In the pilot project, 2,000 volunteers will pay a “mock tax on the number of miles they drive on Washington state roads, rather than on the amount of gas they use.”

by Nicholas Deshais, The Spokesman-Review / September 11, 2017

(TNS) -- Washington state has a problem. Transportation construction costs keep going up, and revenues from the gas tax, the primary source for funding such construction, remain largely flat.

It’s a problem that’s bound to get worse. With electric vehicles and fuel efficiency becoming more common, the flat rate gas tax will do less and less to provide for needed construction.

The Washington State Transportation Commission thinks it has a solution, or at least is ready to try an experiment.

According to a report in the Seattle Times, the state is launching a pilot project where 2,000 volunteers will pay a “mock tax on the number of miles they drive on Washington state roads, rather than on the amount of gas they use.”

The idea is simple enough. Vehicles that use far less fuel, or none at all, still put stress on the roads, and should contribute to the upkeep. California, Oregon, Colorado, Utah and Hawaii have done, or are planning to do, similar mileage pilots.

It also has its disadvantages. Gas tax is easy to collect and impossible to avoid for most of us. For each gallon of gas, the state gets about 49 cents – the second-highest gas tax in the nation – and the federal government takes 18.4 cents per gallon. Last year, the state collected about $1.6 billion from the gas tax, a revenue it’s particularly reliant on for road work, thanks to the lack of an income tax.

On the other hand, tracking mileage for taxation purposes could be difficult. For the pilot program, drivers have different options to account for their miles. They can send in photos of their odometer, have it read at a state licensing office, use a smartphone app to track miles or attach a mileage meter to their car.

To soothe privacy concerns, the state is offering a meter that doesn’t track movement, but the simple ticking by of miles. None of these options are as simple as collecting at the pump.

Gas tax has never been without controversy, but replacing it with a mileage fee will likely face stiff opposition. The first state to institute a gas tax in the nation was Oregon, in 1919. Every other state quickly followed its lead, effectively stripping municipal leaders of their influence over transportation planning and driving it instead to state lawmakers.

Before the shift, cities collected road construction money from the rising property tax revenues the routes created. But gas taxes, administered by states, gave power to state legislators, who were more beholden to rural voters by simple virtue of vote count. Instead of city-centric road planning that relied on density and slower speeds, state lawmakers built highways between cities and paved rural roads.

Since then, the gas tax has become something of a self-sustaining feedback loop. More cars generate more gas tax revenue while also doing more damage to the road, requiring more upkeep and more roads to support the more cars.

As with many taxes, the gas tax isn’t a politician’s best friend. Lawmakers have refused to raise the federal gas tax for 24 years. But replacing it, at least in Washington, appears like more of a political hot potato. The conservative Washington Policy Center is opposed to the new pilot program. And a survey done by the state leading up to the pilot found that 58 percent of respondents opposed a road usage charge to replace the gas tax.

Whether funded by gas tax, mileage tax or some other yet undreamt revenue source, the roads will always need maintenance. As most of us can attest, we keep driving, but the roads just don’t keep up.

©2017 The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC. Editor's note: This story was updated at 10:05 a.m. on Sept. 12, 2017 to reflect that the Washington State Transportation Commission came up with the experiment, not the state Department of Transporation.