With fossil fuel usage trending downward, Washington state officials are rethinking the taxation methods the state applies to road users.
Currently, officials say, Washington’s gas tax is the primary source of revenue for the state’s transportation department. Washington Department of Transportation Communications Director Lars Erickson said there are other minor funding mechanisms such as licensing and permitting fees that may send some cash to highway preservation projects, but the gas tax is the largest fund available for roadway improvements at both the state and local level - and it’s dying.
“The gas tax itself is not going to survive forever,” said Reema Griffith, executive director of Washington Transportation Commission. “And the reason it’s not a long-term sustainable source anymore is basically cars are becoming more and more fuel efficient.”
Griffith said 20 mpg is the current average for vehicles in the state, and forecasters expect that average to reach 35 mpg by 2035. Griffith said these are conservative estimates, and her agency believes mpg rates will rise much quicker than forecast. This is partially due to the fact that vehicle manufacturers are spending billions of dollars transitioning away from fossil fuels, Griffith said.
“If you think about going from 20 miles per gallon to 35 miles per gallon by 2035, that equates to about a 45% reduction in our gas tax revenues,” Griffith said. “You can’t rely on something that’s consumption based when people are simply going to consume less fuel every year.”
Pullman Public Works Director Kevin Gardes said the fuel tax revenue Pullman receives is applied to the city’s street fund and arterial street fund.
“I don’t know if it’s quite a third, but it’s a significant portion of both funds’ revenue,” Gardes said.
Since simply increasing the gas tax is viewed as a short-term solution, some states, including Washington, are experimenting with other forms of taxation.
“In Washington, the state Transportation Commission, which is separate from our transportation agency, is doing a pilot project on the road user charge,” Erickson said. “That’s the concept of people pay a small - it would probably be equivalent to today’s gas tax - charge for the miles they use as opposed to the gallons of gas.”
Griffith said her agency plans to launch the pilot program in early 2018, and it is still looking for applicants. She said the program will involve 2,000 people statewide, and rural drivers who must drive further to reach essential services will make up an important component of the project.
“We really need folks in rural areas like Pullman and elsewhere to participate,” Griffith said. “It’s not saying you endorse or like the idea of paying by the mile, it’s really making sure you’re kind of part of that process and that discussion.”