Traffic

State to test-drive charging drivers by the mile

Southbound traffic on Interstate 5 slows at the beginning of the evening rush hour in OIympia on Nov. 17. The state will soon test ways of charging drivers for miles traveled instead of gallons of gasoline burned.
Southbound traffic on Interstate 5 slows at the beginning of the evening rush hour in OIympia on Nov. 17. The state will soon test ways of charging drivers for miles traveled instead of gallons of gasoline burned. toverman@theolympian.com

Washington state is getting closer to charging people for how much they drive, rather than how much gasoline they burn.

The state will begin a pilot program of a pay-by-mile system next fall and soon will start recruiting volunteers to participate in the 12-month project.

The pilot program will include 2,000 drivers from across the state. The yearlong test will explore ways that the state could charge drivers for road usage, which the state is looking at as a potential alternative to the gas tax it now imposes to pay for road projects.

Right now, drivers in Washington pay a 49.4-cent state tax on each gallon of gasoline they buy, which helps fund road projects and highway maintenance throughout the state.

But state officials warn that over time, gas tax revenues won’t keep up with the cost of highway projects and maintaining the state’s roads and freeways — mainly, because vehicles are becoming more fuel efficient.

By 2035, the state Transportation Commission predicts gas tax revenues will decline by 45 percent per mile driven, as the average vehicle’s fuel efficiency is projected to climb from 20.5 miles per gallon to 35 miles per gallon.

Jeff Doyle, the project manager for implementation of the pilot project, said already many drivers are paying more than their fair share of fuel taxes because they drive older or less fuel-efficient vehicles.

What you’re seeing is, as more and more cars are becoming fuel efficient, there’s a growing equity and fairness issue.

Jeff Doyle, project manager for pay-by-mile pilot in Washington state

Meanwhile, drivers of hybrid cars and electric vehicles aren’t contributing as much gas tax money toward road projects, even if they use the roads more, he said.

While drivers of electric vehicles such as Teslas pay a flat, $150 registration fee that helps contribute to the state’s highway fund, drivers of hybrid vehicles aren’t subject to that fee.

And because electric vehicles don’t burn gasoline at all, the amount their drivers pay in fees isn’t linked to amount of wear and tear they put on the roads, Doyle said.

When it comes to gas taxes, “Teslas don’t contribute anything to the road tax,” said Doyle, a private consultant who previously worked for the state Department of Transportation.

“What you’re seeing is, as more and more cars are becoming fuel efficient, there’s a growing equity and fairness issue.”

Earlier this year, the Legislature directed the Transportation Commission to come up with a plan to test a pay-by-mile system. In August, the Transportation Commission received a $3.8 million grant from the Federal Highway Administration to help put those plans in motion.

This week, the state commission launced a website where people can express interest in being a part of the pay-by-mile pilot.

Drivers from anywhere in Washington can apply, with a goal of having participants from at least five regions.

People who take part in the pilot will test one of four payment systems, ranging from a yearlong permit that allows them to drive unlimited miles to a smartphone app that automatically tracks all the miles they travel.

Other options available to pilot participants include using odometer readings to gauge miles traveled or an automated meter inside the vehicle — neither of which would require GPS location data.

For this to move forward, we’ve got to recognize this is not a one-size-fits-all system.

Reema Griffith, executive director, Washington State Transportation Commission

Drivers won’t actually be charged for miles they travel during the test period. During the simulation, state officials will mostly be looking to see if there are “any fatal flaws, from a technical perspective,” said Reema Griffith, the transportation commission’s executive director.

Griffith said the commission thought it was important to provide drivers with multiple options for the test run, especially given many people’s concerns about privacy. Buying a yearlong permit or using odometer readings wouldn’t require any special technology, she said.

“The notion of government monitoring your numbers of miles is troubling to a lot of people,” Griffith said. “For this to move forward, we’ve got to recognize this is not a one-size-fits-all system.”

Recruitment and selection of participants will occur through next summer, with the one-year test drive set to begin in fall 2017.

If Washington does implement a road usage charge, it would be phased in over time, perhaps starting with the most fuel-efficient vehicles, Griffith said.

For more information about a pay-by-mile system, visit the website for the Washington State Road Usage Charge. A form to express interest in the pilot project is now live, if you scroll to the bottom of the page.

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1

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