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By MARIYA FROST
Contributor 

Per-mile tax should be constitutionally protected for highways only

Guest Commentary

 

Last updated 10/24/2019 at 11:14am



The Washington State Transportation Commission, which has led the effort to study, test and report back to the Legislature on the feasibility of a road-usage charge, agrees the money drivers would pay should be protected for highway spending only.

If implemented, a road-use charge — also called a mileage-based user fee, per-mile charge, vehicle miles traveled tax, and mileage tax — would require drivers to pay a tax on every mile they drive, rather than on every gallon of gas they purchase.

The commission met recently to assess the charge and discuss recommendations. It will vote on final recommendations to the Legislature in December.

Although the commission listed 14 preliminary recommendations, members added a 15th as they mentioned the most common concern they heard was how the money would be spent. Washington Policy Center expressed that concern in 2017, as a road-use charge is not constitutionally protected under the state’s 18th amendment as it is not a “gas tax replacement” but an additional general tax and political tool.

The commission correctly reasoned that since it was tasked with replacing the state’s gas tax, the new revenue source should replicate the features of a gas tax.

Commissioners indicated they will provide analysis to the Legislature on “fiscal, legal and policy implications of reducing or repealing the state’s gas tax and replacing it with RUC.” They will also “provide the Legislature with various options for how RUC could be designed and implemented in a manner that places the revenue under Amendment 18 provisions of the Washington State Constitution.”

Getting constitutional protection is a “heavy lift.”

I agree — but it would only be a “heavy lift” if the real reason for implementing the charge is to secure a general tax and flexible revenue stream that can be used for expenses unrelated to roads, such as transit.

A road-usage charge cannot replace the gas tax fully until outstanding bonds that pledged the gas tax are “paid off or restructured.” The earliest that would be, according to the commission, is in 10 years. The latest — 25 years.

The commission views keeping the gas tax on the books as an advantage because it can continue to charge out-of-state drivers and ensure that drivers who dislike the charge cannot evade payment.

That means the transition from a gas tax to a road-usage charge would likely be long and complicated. I hope policymakers use that time to develop a thoughtful plan on how to reduce transportation costs, and be more responsible with the money we already pay.

The commission’s recommendation to protect a per-mile charge to exclusively fund our critical road system — the way the gas tax does — is a step in the right direction.

Should this recommendation be moved forward in December, and should a charge ever be implemented, it’ll be up to a future Legislature to agree upon constitutional protection for the revenue, and to keep it in place over time. That is another challenge altogether.

Mariya Frost is the Coles Center for Transportation director at Washington Policy Center. Email her at Mfronst@washingtonpolicy.org.

 

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