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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Editorial

Vehicle miles tax needs fair evaluation

The following editorial is from the Yakima Herald-Republic.

Washington state motorists pay the second-highest gas tax in the nation: 49.4 cents per gallon, on top of a federal tax of 18 cents per gallon. That should be enough to carry needed road projects well into the future, right? Well, people who study the issue say that isn’t so.

Much is changing in the world of wheels. Vehicles are getting more fuel-efficient in response to federal mandates and, to some extent, consumer preference in the wake of recent gas-price spikes. Many drivers “go green” philosophically with electric and hybrid vehicles. Especially in urban areas dealing with traffic congestion and high parking rates, people are seeking alternatives to the car, such as transit, bicycling or walking. Younger generations are reported to be less enamored of the car culture.

All this has rendered an erosion of the gas tax, a critical source of road funds. The state’s most recent gas tax hike, a phased-in 11.9 cents per gallon, was the key element in a $15 billion transportation package brokered by state Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima. Hundreds of millions of dollars will go to widening Interstate 90 on the east side of Snoqualmie Pass along with improving access to Puget Sound ports.

State transportation officials are concerned about more than declining revenues; they also see an issue of fairness. Motorists behind the wheel of a hybrid or electric car still use the roads and contribute to wear and tear, but they pay less for construction and upkeep of those motorways.

So state officials are trying out the concept of fees based on the number of miles a vehicle covers in a year, and this fall they will roll out a test. About 2,000 motorists will take part in a pilot project in which participants pay a virtual tax of 2.4 cents per mile, or $240 for 10,000 miles; it’s not an actual fee but a theoretical one to gauge whether a vehicle-miles-traveled tax would work.

There are complications. Those who by necessity put lots of miles on their cars will be wary. Many will consider government tracking of where they drive an invasion of privacy. Sen. King worries about fairly administering a program, especially when drivers cross state lines.

Whatever the objections, the state needs to consider alternatives. It also needs to consider the alternatives on their own merits; the state’s eventual evaluation of the pilot program needs to take an unstinting look as to whether it is fair and workable. If it is, the state must be able to sell it with a straight face.

Washington isn’t alone in considering vehicle miles traveled. In addition to gas taxes, other states are looking at options such as a wholesale tax paid by gas stations, increases in registration and driver’s license fees, separate fees for hybrid vehicles and ramping up traffic fines.

Yes, clearly, something will have to be done down the road. But whatever is done will need to be a clear and fair improvement over what is done now.

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