Per-mile Charge Could Add Up
It is amazing how state government has no limits to the imaginative ideas to separate you from your hard-earned money. It’s been only five years since the Legislature adopted an 11.9-cent gas tax hike to pay for a 16-year, $16 billion statewide transportation package. At 49.4 cents per gallon, Washington has the third highest gas tax in the nation, behind Pennsylvania (58 cents) and California (56 cents).
Since 46 other states take care of their transportation system by not collecting as much as our state, we should get by just fine, right? But Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC) officials say it’s not enough. They want more of your money.
WSTC has been on a path for the past eight years to sell the public and the state Legislature on a statewide “road usage charge,” in which you would pay by the mile.
With a $3.8 million federal grant and authorization from the Legislature, WSTC created a 12-month statewide pilot program using 2,000 volunteers to test the road-usage charge concept. Volunteers were given one of four payment systems, ranging from a year-long permit that allowed them to drive unlimited miles to a smartphone app that automatically tracked all the miles they traveled. Other options included using odometer readings to gauge miles traveled or an automated meter inside the vehicle, neither of which would require GPS location data. During the test period, drivers were not charged for miles they traveled. The experiment wrapped up early last year.
In an online survey I conducted last summer, I asked my 26th district constituents, “Do you support a pay-by-mile road usage charge.” The majority, 82.24 percent, said “NO!”
This tax is disproportionately unfair to rural citizens, such as Key Peninsula commuters who drive to more populated areas for work or to receive services. It would especially impact those who make their living by driving — pizza drivers, newspaper delivery drivers, landscapers, in-home repair services and more. With higher minimum wage requirements, new family and sick- leave employer taxes, increased payroll taxes, and higher business and occupation taxes, pay-per-mile could be the final nail in the coffin of many smaller businesses struggling to get by. The closure of businesses means the loss of family-wage jobs.
With the state gas tax, 49.4 cents per gallon is collected every time you go to the gas pump. However, if a per-mile charge is assessed with an annual odometer reading, would you have to cough up hundreds, or even thousands of dollars at once? How would that affect families and senior citizens with limited incomes?
There are also privacy concerns. While WSTC says mileage tracking equipment that would be installed in vehicles does not contain GPS tracking, there is nothing to guarantee that wouldn’t change in the future. And what about the option to use the phone app? That certainly relies on GPS tracking.
Also, because transportation projects have been bonded to the gas tax, the pay-per-mile would be an additional tax. While there is talk to phase in pay-per-mile, I do not trust future legislatures to remove or phase out the gas tax. Historically, our state has added taxes, not removed them. In fact, last year the Legislature raised taxes by more than $2 billion. State government spending has increased by 70 percent since 2013. Has your income increased by that much?
The road usage charge is one of several taxes being discussed in the 2020 session, along with the possibility of a state income tax and a low carbon fuel standard that could significantly raise gas prices at the pump. Washington voters have already sent a strong message through the passage of Initiative 976 ($30 car tab fees) that they are taxed enough. Shouldn’t the Legislature be listening to them?
Our 60-day session will conclude March 12. I encourage you to contact House Transportation Committee members and voice your opinion on this issue. You can find a member list online at: leg.wa.gov/House/Committees/TR or leave a message on the toll-free Legislative Hotline at 1-800-562-6000.
Our citizens and small businesses simply can’t afford to send more of their hard-earned dollars to Olympia. It’s time to stand up for taxpayers and say “no” to a new road-usage charge.
Rep. Michelle Caldier, R-Port Orchard, represents the 26th Legislative District.