by Matt Rosenberg September 26th, 2012
Assistant civil engineering professor Cynthia Chen of the University of Washington and Sammamish City Council member Don Gerend are among 20 experts serving on a new state committee charged with overseeing a preliminary feasibility assessment of a revolutionary transportation funding method based on charging vehicles for all miles driven. The Washington State Road Usage Charge Steering Committee will meet seven more times between now and June, 2013, when it is to finish a first phase of work for state legislators who will then decide whether to fund more study that could lead to eventual implementation of what some also call the vehicle mileage tax. Employing on-board devices or other technical tools, the RUC/VMT would be a radically different kind of pay-as-you approach to funding surface transportation system maintenance and expansion. In the last decade, there have already been a series of preliminary pilot projects to test it out in Puget Sound, Oregon, and across the U.S. Some implementation has occurred in Europe. Following are details and links on how to track the current Washington study’s work and get involved.
Pendleton presentation to WA, OR transportation commissions
Washington Department of Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond plus WSDOT’s Chief of Staff Steve Reinmuth and the department’s Director of Public/Private Partnerships Jeff Doyle last week in Pendleton, Oregon, at a joint meeting of the Washington and Oregon transportation commissions provided an overview of funding challenges, and shared information on the study’s Phase One deliverables and timelines, steering committee roster and future meeting dates. And although Washington right now is a long way from green-lighting a vehicle mileage tax, nonetheless in presentations from the Columbia River Gorge to the East Coast, WSDOT has quietly but insistently been stressing that the approach may well be warranted because improved vehicle mileage and inflation have rendered the gas tax increasingly ineffective to pay for surface transportation maintenance and growing capacity needs.
Big worries about future gas tax revenues
In the Pendleton presentation WSDOT officials showed projections that Washington by 2024 could end up with as much as $3.8 billion less than expected per year in gas tax revenues, accelerating a decline in its purchasing power that started around 2006. The gas tax, WSDOT says, is “a 1920’s era taxing mechanism” which will increasingly punish drivers of less fuel-efficient vehicles even though all vehicles add to costly wear and tear.
Joined at the river, if not the hip
So Washington and Oregon are not only both exploring future implementation of their own vehicle mileage tax strategies, and acknowledging the possibility of a cross-border VMT plan in years to come. They are also entwined in the bi-state Columbia River Crossing project. That’s a $4 billion replacement of the aging bridge across their deep, watery divide. That project’s financing will include so-called “corridor tolling” done electronically, as on a growing number of Seattle-region bridges, tunnels and highways. But experts nationwide agree that even aggressive highway system tolling in major metro regions won’t come close to meeting future project needs, including not only roads but transit.
Public meetings underway
The road usage charge first phase study is funded with $1 million from the state legislature and overseen by the transportation commission and WSDOT. The study’s steering committee met September 13 in Sea-Tac, and received a detailed briefing. It will meet seven more times from now through June. Important milestones, according to the WSDOT presentation, are a preliminary feasibility assessment and operational concept in December, a preliminary work plan and two-year budget (in the event the legislature authorizes a second phase of the inquiry) in January, and a final Phase One report complete with a public opinion analysis, in June.
Public participation welcomed
WSTC has unveiled a blog-format web site for the study, which includes a schedule of meetings and links to materials. Project Team communications lead Natalie Quick said all meetings are open to the public, and comments can be given to the steering committee at the beginning of each meeting or via an online contact form. Additionally, the transportation commission will continue conducting ongoing surveys of state residents on a range of surface transportation issues, to include the RUC/VMT. Sign up at the commission’s Voice of Washington page.
Consultants picked, and at work
A top U.S. transportation consulting firm, Cambridge Systematics, will do the current study’s policy assessment work. The Seattle-based Berk consulting firm, experienced in outreach, will be painting the rocky landscape of public opinion. Handling the technical analysis is D’Artagnan Consulting, headed by veteran global transportation consultant Jack Opiola.
Steering committee appointed
The steering committee is chaired by Washington Transportation Commission member Tom Cowan of San Juan County. Other members in addition to Chen of UW and Gerend of Sammamish, are:
A WSTC roster of the committee members includes biographies of each.
The next meeting is 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. October 30, in the central auditorium of the Sea-Tac Airport Conference Center. Directions here.
“State to Contract for Feasibility Report on Vehicle Mileage Tax,” Public Data Ferret;
“WA Eyes New U.S. Transpo Bill Funds, But With Questions,” Public Data Ferret;
“WA Gas Tax, License Fee Hikes Eyed; Local MVET Option Seen,” Public Data Ferret