State may do away with the gas tax, but motorists still would pay

Stiles-Marc.jpgMarc StilesStaff Writer- Puget Sound Business JournalEmail | Twitter

The Washington State Transportation Commission is preparing to recommend that the Legislature consider a dramatic overhaul of how to fund billions of dollars of road construction in the coming decades.

Instead of relying on a gas tax, motorists may one day be charged by how many miles they drive. Another option is an annual fee. In briefings to the media Thursday, officials lumped both ideas into one concept they called a “road usage charge assessment.”

Vehicles are becoming more fuel efficient or running entirely on electricity. Also, people are driving less, either due to the weak economy or because they’re shifting to other travel modes, such as mass transit.

State officials project that as drivers use less fuel, gas tax revenues could fall by more than $5 billion between 2007 and 2023. This is a problem because in Washington, the state gas tax funds 76 percent of all transportation investments.

“The gas tax is simply not sustainable,” state Transportation Commissioner Tom Cowan said. He was one of three people who briefed the Business Journal on the possible change.

Recognizing the revenue shortage, legislators last year appropriated $1 million to determine whether it would be feasible to transition from the gas tax to a road user assessment system. The commission appointed a steering committee, which determined that it is feasible. Now the commission is recommending the Legislature undertake two years of work to continue the study.

The work would include public outreach, research on how a road usage system might be set up, and pilot projects.

Charging motorists a per-mile fee is not unheard of. Europe does it. But in the United States, it’s relatively unknown, although one state, Oregon, has been looking at it for about a dozen years.

“People have no concept of what this is,” said Allegra Calder of Berk, a consulting company that is working with the state to assess the road usage charge. But something needs to be done, she said, “because pavement doesn’t repair itself.”

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