Drivers should be wary of a state plan to tax them per mile rather than at the gas pump. There's no guarantee their money will be used to maintain and expand roads.
This will come as a shock to some people, but internet dating profiles are not always honest. The polished profile picture and self-description often don’t match the person you meet. Now, throw in politics. That is essentially what you get with our state’s idea to implement a Road Usage Charge (RUC), a tax on every mile you drive. What state officials are presenting in their current pilot project is not what we will get in real life.
The Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC) is finishing the yearlong pilot project to test public acceptability of taxing drivers per mile rather than at the pump.
Mileage-based fees can be a fair way to pay for roads. In a perfect world without massive administrative costs and privacy concerns, drivers may feel comfortable paying the proposed 2.4 cents per mile rather than a traditional gas tax if they know their money will be used to maintain and expand roads we all depend on.
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We live in Washington state, however, where forcing people to drive 50 percent less by 2050 is official policy. It is the state where the head of the Department of Transportation (DOT) has declared traffic congestion “is a problem we simply cannot solve” and is focused not on providing better service, but on “managing demand” through tolls, transit, and encouraging walking and biking.
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Our state’s DOT is increasingly indistinguishable from interest groups and some lawmakers advocating for more money toward transit and less for roads. To achieve this goal, they want a new tax that does not get deposited into the Motor Vehicle Fund (MVF), a trust fund that is protected by the 18th Amendment to the state constitution. Money in this fund cannot be used for non-highway purposes, such as transit.
For example, state gas taxes and vehicle license fees are protected within the MVF. Tolls on Interstate 405 and the Tacoma Narrows Bridge are protected as well. However, lawmakers put tolls on state Highway 520 and the new state Highway 99 tunnel into accounts outside of the MVF, and the money is therefore not protected. When public officials choose not to deposit drivers’ money into the trust fund, it means they want to spend it elsewhere on projects that may not provide a direct benefit to those who have paid.
All lawmakers would have to do to build public confidence and ensure a mileage tax is treated as a user fee rather than a general tax is direct mileage tax revenue to the trust fund. A constitutional amendment is not required.
Unfortunately, transportation agencies and regional planners see a big opportunity in the mileage tax to secure a new revenue source they can deposit into a more general fund, allowing them the flexibility to spend it on any program they want.
Officials haven’t been shy in expressing this preference.
The Puget Sound Regional Council, an obscure but powerful planning organization that also sits on the RUC Steering Committee, would like “a broader consideration of possible uses” if a mileage tax becomes policy. They want to see the state get away from inconvenient revenue “silos,” like the 18th Amendment, to allow more “flexibility in expenditures.”
The Washington State Transportation Commission says that in “learning from the RUC,” agencies that want to expand multimodal options rely on taxes and fees that “don’t flex.” In defining policy objectives for the pilot project in 2013, the commission asked, “Should revenues raised by a Road Usage Charge be strictly for roadway use (similar to the gas tax) or should there be a broader transportation use of such revenues?”
Similarly, the Transportation Choices Coalition, a transit booster whose policy director is one of the WSTC’s commissioners, advocates for a “pay-as-you-drive system” that “will provide the level and flexibility of revenues to … pursue a wide variety of transportation choices.”
The state Transportation Commission says it is only exploring options to replace the gas tax and that the Legislature is “the ultimate decision-maker on tax and transportation policies.” While it is true that the Legislature would have the final say, all indications are that every major interest group will lobby the Legislature for the right to spend the money on transit. It will be difficult for the Legislature to ignore them.
Therefore, the commission’s focus on fine-tuning new ways to tax people while avoiding how the tax dollars should be treated is the wrong approach, especially for an organization that proposes specific transportation policy for the state. Our transportation officials should make 18th Amendment protection of drivers’ money a top policy priority now. Being up front about the mileage tax and how the money should be used would, unlike many online dating profiles, honor the public with the honesty and transparency it deserves.