Transportation commission releases report on “road usage charges”

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For many, America is the land of the open road, where drivers can roam freely and where happiness is a full tank of gas – or a fully charged battery, if you have an electric vehicle.

But a proposal being discussed in Olympia envisions a very different future. If the proposal is implemented, drivers would be charged for every mile driven. They could see their movements tracked by bureaucrats. Alternatively, they would have to report their odometer readings to the government or purchase “mileage permits” ahead of time to avoid costly penalties.

On January 13, the Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC) transmitted their final report on “road usage charges” to governor Jay Inslee, the state legislature and the Federal Highway Administration. WSTC’s report includes analysis and findings of the legal, fiscal, operational and policy impacts of road usage charges and provides recommendations and options on how the charges could be implemented in Washington.

“The state legislature will ultimately decide if a road usage charge will be implemented in Washington,” said a January 14 press release from WSTC. “Should the legislature move forward with a road usage charge, it must consider several key topics, all of which the commission’s final report addressed. Those include how to gradually transition to a road usage charge system, determine what vehicles should be subject to paying road usage charges, determine the per-mile rate policy, set forth the allowable use of road usage charge revenue and determine details around how a road usage charge program would be implemented.”

According to WSTC’s report, which is available online at waroadusagecharge.org/final-report, a pilot project ran from February 2018 to January 2019. Participants tested a mock pay-per-mile system, and chose from one of five mileage reporting options to record and report their mileage for roadway use. “High-tech, low-tech and no-tech options to report miles driven were tested during the pilot, ranging from self-reporting of a vehicle’s odometer to using smartphones or in-vehicle technology,” said the report.

Specifically, the five options were: using a GPS device that plugs into your vehicle’s OBD-II port; using a non-GPS device that plugs into the same port; downloading a smartphone app on which GPS could be enabled or disabled; reporting your odometer reading to the government quarterly; or pre-purchasing a mileage permit that could be topped up as needed.

Over 2,000 drivers from around the state participated in the pilot program, and a majority of them selected the plug-in devices. They reported their miles driven, received mock invoices, provided feedback and received gift cards of up to $100. In surveys, the participants said that privacy was their top concern. “When discussing privacy, participants typically noted concerns about location and movements being tracked and the amount of information collected under a road usage charge system,” said the report. “Survey respondents frequently linked privacy to data security, wanting to ensure their private information cannot be breached.”

To address these concerns, a model privacy policy was developed as part of the pilot project. The report also recommends amendments to the Public Records Act to exempt data collected in a road usage charge program from public disclosure. According to the proposed amendments, “The personally identifying information of persons who report their vehicle odometer mileage, including any vehicle location information, in relation to a road usage charge … may be released to law enforcement agencies only for United States Customs and Border Protection enforcement purposes. Personally identifying information may be released to law enforcement agencies for other purposes only if the request is accompanied by a court order.”

According to the report, there could be many other recipients of drivers’ personal information besides law enforcement. They could include financial institutions, employees of state agencies, service providers, contractors and other entities.

The goal of the road usage charge proposal is to supplement gas tax revenues, which are expected to decline in the future. “As vehicles become more fuel-efficient or switch to electric power, gas tax revenue is expected to decline by as much as 45 percent by 2035,” said WSTC’s press release. “In 2012, the legislature directed the commission to assess the potential of a road usage charge to replace the gas tax. A road usage charge is a per-mile charge drivers would pay for the use of the roads, as opposed to paying by the gallon of gas.”

WSTC’s report attempts to address several complexities, such as double taxation – drivers potentially being subject to both the gas tax and road usage charges at the same time – and how to collect road usage charges from out-of-state drivers. The report also attempts to address concerns that drivers living in rural areas could be charged more than drivers living in urban areas.

While the state legislature would determine the exact number of cents per mile that drivers would be charged, the pilot project supposed that drivers would pay 2.5 cents per mile driven, rather than paying the state’s 49.4-cents-per-gallon gas tax.

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