The state is taking a serious look at possibly charging drivers for every mile they drive as a way to boost transportation coffers that are drying up while cutting gas taxes at the same time.
Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond told KIRO Radio’s Ross and Burbank show Wednesday that the so-called “road usage charge” could replace Washington’s gas tax altogether, which is one of the highest in the country.
A 2010 report found that vehicle miles traveled in the Puget Sound region more than doubled between 1980 and 2009. But, Hammond said the increase in the number of fuel-efficient cars that can go farther on a gallon of gas has cut into gas tax revenues across the country.
The Washington State Road Usage Charge Assessment Steering Committee issued a report last week which found that a road usage charge (also known as a Vehicle Mileage Tax) is a feasible way to wean the state off gas taxes.
Hammond said the technology is there. Two European countries are reportedly preparing to implement it. The next step, she said, is to determine if it’s desirable to Washington drivers.
"We're going to start engaging with the public and try and understand what people think about the risks, the opportunities, and some of those things," said Hammond.
The big question: How would you enforce it?
The report said a number of devices exist, such as in-car GPS and smartphone apps, that can track mileage. That will surely draw protest from people who will say the government will be watching their every move.
“Privacy is such a big hurdle for folks. We want to understand what they think about that more. But, we also know that people with cell phones are already driving around and the ‘eye in the sky’ – not the state or the government – but there are folks who know everywhere you go. Or, could we just collect mileage and price it that way,” said Hammond.
Hammond said it would take five to ten years to implement the road user charge. If there’s too much opposition, it won’t happen at all.
Other states, including Oregon and Texas, are looking at similar techniques.
WSDOT plans to ask the Legislature for $3.5 million to study whether the road usage charge is worth pursuing.