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Washington Joins Oregon In Pay-By-The-Mile Experiment

Chris Lehman/Northwest News Network
Oregon Department of Transportation Spokesperson Tom Fuller fills his tank at a gas station in Salem, Oregon.

Beginning early next year, a group of Washington drivers will be keeping close tabs on the number of miles they drive and how much they spend on gas. They will be part of a pilot program to test out a proposed pay-by-the-mile road tax, similar to what Oregon rolled out in 2015.

The Washington State Transportation Commission is recruiting 2,000 people who represent a broad range of drivers—from east and west of the Cascades, and from cities and rural areas. They are looking for people who drive both often and occasionally, and who come from a variety of racial, ethnic and socio-economic groups.

“We hear a lot of concern from people across the state about what this program will mean to them,” said Reema Griffith, the executive director of the Washington State Transportation Commission. “We want to have as much representation of different kinds of drivers and to have a richer data set to see how it will impact people.”

Pay-by-the-mile is a new idea for Washington state drivers. Oregon has had a head start examining the concept and the technologies needed to pull it off.

Right now in Washington drivers pay a 49 cent per gallon state gas tax that goes to fund transportation projects.

But as vehicles become more fuel-efficient, state officials expect the gas tax will soon fall far short of what the state needs to maintain roads, bridges and the ferry system. By 2035, the state estimates gas tax revenue will decline by 45 percent.

With the so-called Road Usage Charge - or RUC - drivers would pay for the number of miles they drive in the state, not the amount of gas they use.

As in Oregon, volunteer study participants in Washington can track their mileage by using GPS devices or by having their odometers checked periodically. Washington’s pilot program also offers a new option: a cellphone app that distinguishes between miles driven in state and out of state. Washington will give study participants a choice among five different ways of reporting their mileage.

Washington and Oregon are among seven states that received federal grant money to fund pilot projects. The idea at the federal level is to seed many state level experiments to sort out the most equitable means of paying for transportation infrastructure in the future. The transition date would be a political decision, highly uncertain when for now.

“We all use the roads, so its important that we pitch in to make sure that the roads are there for us in the future,” said Griffith.  

Washington state's trial program will roll out sometime in late January or early February. Volunteers will not actually pay a road tax, they will just keep track of their mileage and compare the estimated cost with the amount they actually pay at the gas pump. By 2020, the Commission must report its final findings from the pilot program to the governor and the legislature.

Deborah is an award–winning radio and television journalist whose career spans more than three decades. As the recipient of a 2018-2019 Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellowship, Deborah is currently focusing her reporting on adolescents and mental health.