Transportation planners know the day of reckoning is drawing closer. The gas tax, a once reliable source for new projects and maintenance, is losing its oomph. Traditional vehicles are growing more efficient, and the new-fangled ones don’t even require a trip to the pump.
However, government has already leveraged the gas tax for long-term transportation projects. Those bonds are like a house with a 30-year mortgage. As long as there is a steady income source, they can be paid off. Problem is, that income will dwindle without changes.
The conservative forecast for gasoline-powered vehicles in Washington state is that they will average 35 miles per gallon by 2035. That’s fewer trips to the pumps, which works out to a 45 percent decrease in gas-tax revenue per gallon. To keep pace, the gas tax would have to be raised 1.5 cents per year on all vehicles, from 2019 to 2043, according to the Washington State Transportation Commission.
Washington state already charges 49.4 cents per gallon, which is second only to Pennsylvania. Uncle Sam takes 18.4 cents. The federal rate hasn’t changed since 1993, which is why the federal transportation trust fund is depleted. It’s also why states can no longer rely on the feds for help.
And if that weren’t enough, people under the age of 30 don’t drive as much as their elders, and that also means less gas-tax revenue in the long run.
So what’s a political leader to do?
The practical answer is to find another funding source to either replace or supplement the gas tax. Or, the state can continually raise the gas tax. Either way it’s going to be a political ordeal.
After a long, involved battle over multiple legislative sessions, lawmakers finally adopted an 11.9 cent-per-gallon increase in 2015, which was phased in over two years. It doesn’t seem realistic to go through that exercise over and over. On the other hand, all of the alternatives are fraught with political peril, too.
One concept being considered is to charge by miles traveled, rather than gasoline consumed. It would be a true user fee and all drivers would pay, regardless of how vehicles are powered. Currently, drivers of electric cars don’t contribute to the gas-tax funding stream.
Legislators passed a bill calling for a pilot project to test a per-mile “road usage charge.” The state is looking for 2,000 volunteers. Officials say they especially need rural drivers to help with the test. Participants need not be advocates of such a charge, but the state wants to see how it would work in a variety of settings.
There are several options for measuring the miles. Participants can send in photos of their odometers, attach a GPS-type gadget or use a smartphone app. If you don’t want to be tracked, there is an option that counts miles without “following” you.
For more information, visit the Washington State Transportation Commission website.
A per-mile charge would undoubtedly be controversial, but so are all of the other ways (including car tabs and tolling) the government raises transportation dollars. This pilot project will help the state decide if this is a practical solution.