The Washington Department of Transportation is looking for a few thousand good drivers – particularly in Asotin and Garfield counties – to help test a new way to fund the state highway system.
The agency wants to sign up at least 2,000 drivers from across the state for a 12-month pilot project that’s set to begin early next year. The purpose of the project is to evaluate the possibility of implementing a per-mile road usage charge.
A road usage charge would tax drivers based on how many miles they drive, rather than how much fuel their vehicle consumes, as is the case now with the state fuel tax.
Several western states have considered switching from a fuel tax to a road-usage charge. Washington has studied the concept for the past decade, but this will be its first large-scale pilot project to test the technology.
Ara Swanson, a communications specialist working with the Washington Transportation Commission, said drivers who participate in the pilot will be sent mock bills, but no actual money will be involved. The intent is simply to evaluate how the system works in practice.
“This is a unique opportunity for Washington drivers to have a say in the future of state transportation policy,” Swanson said.
Participants will be able to choose from among several different mileage tracking and reporting options, ranging from quarterly odometer readings to on-board tracking devices or smartphone apps. Some of the options would track all miles driven in the vehicle – including out of state or on private roads – while others would use GPS technology to count only those miles driven on state roadways.
Participants don’t need to like the idea of a road usage charge or agree that it’s a better alternative to a fuel tax, she said. In fact, the agency is hoping to sign up drivers who have diverse opinions about the issue.
“We’re really hoping to get a good representation of drivers from all across Washington,” Swanson said.
That includes geographic representation as well – and currently no drivers in Asotin or Garfield counties have signed up to participate, while only a handful in Whitman County have.
Western states are looking at road-usage charges as an alternative to the fuel tax in part because fuel tax revenue is on the decline.
“With the increases in fuel efficiency and increases in the number of hybrid or electric vehicles, gas tax revenues are projected to decrease,” Swanson said. “So states are looking at different ways to fund their transportation systems.”
In 2012, a small pilot project involving 21 participants in Washington found that most drivers felt the system was fair and easy to use. However, most would have paid more in road usage charges than they would under a fuel tax system.
That’s because the per-mile charge used in the pilot was calculated based on an average fuel efficiency of 20 miles per gallon. Vehicles with a higher fuel efficiency would pay more in road usage charges than they would in fuel tax, while vehicles with poorer fuel efficiency would pay less.
Deciding on the proper per-mile charge – and whether there should be different rates for different types of vehicles – is something the Legislature would need to determine before moving forward with a road-usage charge, Swanson said.
“That’s not something we’ll evaluate in this pilot,” she said.
Anyone interested in participating in the project can sign up online at https://waroadusagecharge.org.