A mileage tax is an invasion of your privacy and wallet: Column
By Mariya Frost
State transportation officials say they want to impose a tax on every mile you drive. A test of the new tax, which officials call a Road Usage Charge, begins in early 2018. Led by the Washington State Transportation Commission, the pilot project will simulate what it could be like for drivers to pay a tax on every mile they drive and, officials hope, get the public to accept the new tax.
The commission claims this would be a replacement and not a supplement to the gas tax, although they also say the gas tax would likely stay in place to ensure that out-of-state drivers pay for their use of Washington state roads.
Despite admitting uncertainty about the future, transportation officials seem absolutely certain there will be a fuel-tax revenue crisis. The commission blames fuel-efficient and electric vehicles for government projections of slowing in the increase of yearly fuel-tax revenue. They insist a mileage tax will ensure everyone pays for the roads they use.
In principle, the commission is right – everyone should help pay for their use of roads. The good news is that we already do, and with reasonable, voter-approved adjustments, can continue to do so into the future.
Washington state drivers already pay the second highest gas tax in the nation, a combined state and federal total of 67.8 cents per gallon. The last 11.9 cent hike was approved just two years ago to fund the $16 billion, 16-year Connecting Washington transportation package. In addition to the gas-tax increase, the annual renewal fee for electric vehicles increased by 50 percent to $150. Despite these significant increases, transportation officials still say they do not get enough money.
Even a continued increase in the gas tax seems unpalatable to the commission. Despite this, the commissioners say they want a mileage tax. What makes the mileage tax so appealing to them? A recent interview on TVW’s “The Impact” sheds some light.
On Sept. 27, WSTC Executive Director Reema Griffith was asked if a mileage tax could be leveraged to “influence motorist behavior” to achieve “social objectives” like “reducing energy use, greenhouse gas emissions and congestion, or encouraging transit use.” These social objectives were pulled directly from the WSTC’s own 2013 study.
Griffith complained the gas tax is too “one dimensional.” Government is not able to collect enough private data about driving behavior. She states, “We don’t know who’s filling, what kind of car it’s going in, what your car’s mileage is, we don’t know anything. So we’re kind of blind and it’s just collected and we’re done, it’s a flat rate.”
From the public’s perspective, that is exactly why the gas tax is the best method of payment for roads. It is simple. It is cheap to collect. It respects our privacy. It is also protected by the state’s 18th amendment, ensuring that the tax drivers pay is used for highways. It’s understandable that government officials like Griffith say they feel “blind,” perceiving this as a loss of control over private information and money, but that is a gain for the freedom of the traveling public.
A mileage tax, Griffith explained, creates a “three-dimensional world where … we’ll understand how you’re driving – does the fact that you now know how much you pay for a trip change how many trips you make? That’s something we’re going to learn in the pilot … It opens the door for policymakers to start rethinking maybe – what are our policy objectives for transportation?” Those objectives, however, should not be set by politicians, but by drivers.
In response to a later question, Griffith adds, “If they want to layer on some different objectives for maybe urban areas or to invest in all-weather roads or enhance snow removal on the pass … they can consider different rates in certain zones or certain locations. It kind of opens the door to all that again.”
That is one “door” many drivers do not want to see the government open – ever – particularly in a state where transportation policy is increasingly driven by political ideology rather than the actual public demand. The opportunity government officials see in the mileage tax is also the reason this will likely not be a “replacement” for the gas tax, because the mileage tax would serve an entirely different function.
The gas tax has been around for decades because it works. It generates billions in revenue for roads and gives taxpayers power over increases. A mileage tax could deteriorate this clear and fair system at a great social cost to the traveling public – potentially circumventing 18th amendment revenue protections, violating people’s privacy and giving government unrestricted power over how drivers’ tax money is spent.
Mariya Frost is the director of the Coles Center for Transportation at Washington Policy Center and can be contacted at Mfrost@washingtonpolicy.org. This commentary was published in The Seattle Times on Nov. 14, 2017.