Washington drivers currently pay a gas tax every time they pump, but the state is considering a new option to fund roads projects. 
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Washington drivers currently pay a gas tax every time they pump, but the state is considering a new option to fund roads projects.
Credit: Flickr Photo/futureatlas.com (CC-BY-NC-ND)

Listeners' Pay-By-Mile Questions Answered

There’s hundreds of millions of dollars in backlog for repairs to Washington roads, and according to Mark Hallenbeck, director of the University of Washington’s Transportation Center, the gas tax won’t cover the cost.

The Washington State Transportation Commission is considering a different option: pay-by-mile.

Hallenbeck said pay-by-mile is a good replacement for the gas tax because it hooks the financing of road projects to the users: the more you use, the more you pay. However, it typically doesn’t pay well for megaprojects or issues beyond basic maintenance.

We asked our Facebook followers for feedback and posed their questions and concerns to Hallenbeck.

Does Pay-By-Mile Affect Lower-Income Drivers More?

“Social equity is a big, big issue,” Hallenbeck said. “But simply switching from a gas tax to a per-mile tax is basically a wash from a social equity perspective.”

There are ways to help alleviate the fee burden on those with lower incomes, for instance with a tax credit or making adjustments in the pricing system.

But Hallenbeck also made the point that those with lower incomes were less likely to own fuel-efficient, hybrid or electric cars – which would then mean they were paying more at the pump with the gas tax.

Does It Matter Whether A Person Is Driving A Small Car Or Big SUV?

“Well, the hilarious thing about that is between the [Honda] Fit and your SUV – your costs are exactly the same as far as the roadway is concerned,” Hallenbeck said. “You actually use up the same amount of road space, you cause the same amount of damage, which, unless you have studded tires on your car, is essentially nothing.”

He explained that the difference in weight does start to matter when you bring in commercial semis, which already pay a per-mile tax, a fuel tax, a registration tax and a fee for going between states.

How Would Pay-By-Mile By Implemented?

It's true that the possible implementation of pay-by-mile could get complicated. Currently, Washington state does not have a proposal on how to enact this new system, but Hallenbeck offered some of the possibilities.

For example, a person’s responsibility would be determined based simply on how many miles they drove that year, essentially taking an odometer reading at the beginning of the year and the end of the year and multiplying the miles by a set amount.

At issue, Hallenbeck said, is that a mile in Seattle is worth more than one in Eastern Washington because the road costs are higher.

To solve that problem, the state could require some sort of location system in the vehicle, such as an app on your phone. Besides tracking regional driving, such a system could track surface street versus freeway use, which Hallenbeck said would tie revenue collection to the costs being experienced.

“The people who are driving up the costs in the most expensive places pay the most,” Hallenbeck said. “But now I have to track you and so that creates privacy issues and complications.”

Hallenbeck said the commission is considering systems that would give people different pay-by-mile options, but that an official proposal has not yet been decided on.

Produced for the Web by Kara McDermott.