The Case Against Washington State’s “Road Usage Charge” Program

The Washington State Transportation Commission is conducting a pilot program in 2017 to determine the feasibility of a “Road Usage Charge” also referred to as a “vehicle miles traveled” tax. They believe gas tax revenues will decline due to the emergence of more efficient gas and diesel-burning vehicles. Additionally, alternative fuel vehicles that use electric, natural gas and hydrogen pay no gas taxes.

There are many reasons to oppose this program (before the pilot even begins):

  • It will be invasive, intrusive and compromise privacy.
  • It will be expensive. New technologies will need to be developed and deployed.
  • It will create a new state bureaucracy which will make it even more costly.
  • It will open the door for social engineers to invade your daily routine, commute routes and cost you even more.
The Constitution, Right to Privacy, and protection against unreasonable search and seizure

The thought of tracking drivers’ whereabouts (all this data will be available if not necessarily relayed back to the data center to track your car’s mileage as the device will surely contain a GPS chipset) is a full frontal assault on freedom. They’ll claim that it’s necessary to install such a device so that you’ll not be charged for miles driven outside the state. The notion that citizens movements could be monitored in this fashion is outrageous to freedom loving Americans.

Our present gas tax is an ideal user tax because users pay according to the amount they use. The lower your car’s fuel-efficiency, the more you pay.

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures”

Citizens have a right to privacy, as guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment. It is debatable that agreeing to the “search” by participating in the program would do an end run around the bill of rights. However, it’s been held that citizens cannot sign away inalienable rights.

On-board Technology will not be cheap

Keeping track of the miles driven will certainly not be on the “Honor System”, so there must be some mechanism to make sure the miles are recorded and transmitted to state computers so they can send out an invoice and get paid for your transgression of commuting to work and back. This technology will go into every car and there will be costs to bear at various points along the way. A back-of-the-envelope analysis counts no less than seven areas of new costs to the state:

  • Litigation: Privacy groups will fight establishment of this program tooth-and-nail.
  • Procurement: Initial tracking unit for millions of automobiles; even at $25 a unit, that’s probably $50+ million in outlays. This undermines the real needs we have in this state to enhance and maintain our roads.
  • Installation: Initial unit’s installation will need to be done and that is probably not a DIY project. Pony up some more cash to get Car Toys to install it.
  • Wireless service: for every unit; likely a major carrier deal to connect all the units. Since it’s a small amount of data each month, probably not expensive if the state negotiates a good deal, but when there are millions of units, it will add up.
  • Server Infrastructure: The state will have to have to store this data somewhere and rather than utilize the cloud, they’ll need to “create” all sorts of state IT jobs by standing up servers of their own. Conservatively this will be $5 million to create and a million or two to maintain annually.
  • Invoicing of charges and maintenance of account information and credit card numbers. Yet more costs for servicing the accounts, payment processing and collections when your bill goes unpaid. There’s also the real risk of data breaches for every Washingtonian goes up with this program.
  • Dispute resolution: The state thinks you drove 1000 miles last week, while your car was parked in the garage the entire time. We can look forward to the same level of efficient service that we get with Good To Go accounts because this idea comes from the same folks.

Compare this to a tax that’s either levied at the retail or wholesale level and simply passed through to the consumer in the price. It’s completely painless to the consumer (other than the higher price) and the costs of collection are low. It probably takes a team of 5-10 people who work with gas wholesalers or retailers to collect the tax. There’s no IT overhead, no credit card processing or collections. The only way for a consumer to avoid the tax is not to buy petrol.

This is also a simplistic and rudimentary use of technology with only a downside for the state’s road fund and civil liberties outcomes.

Also, currently an admittedly small percentage of gas sales is for tractors, ATVs, lawnmowers and such, but those users are helping pay for roads even though they aren’t using them. The current tax is “device agnostic” to put it in technical terms; if you buy gas or diesel, you’re paying for our road system. That revenue would not be captured in a Road Usage Charge model.

New bureaucracy that’s completely unnecessary

With new bureaucracy, there are new ideas. In today’s left-leaning controlled governments, new ideas mean social engineering and an erosion of individual liberties.

This notion that because drivers are opting for alternative fuel vehicles like electrics, hybrids and fuel cell (hydrogen) that the gas tax needs to be replaced with something that applies across all vehicle types is fundamentally flawed. Other specific taxes can be added for fuel types that don’t require drivers to visit a fueling station.

The Department of Licensing has fuel classifications built into every single car registration, so an electric car could be charged a flat rate per year in the registration renewal fees that would be the average of what a gas-powered car would pay in gas taxes. If hydrogen fuel cell vehicles start to catch on, the legislature could pass a per-gallon charge that would be equivalent to the gas tax rates.

Scrapping our gas tax system (and what could be a couple of one-offs fees to handle alternative fuels) is what the Washington State Transportation Commission seems dead set on.

If we can increase the per-gallon tax at a point to maintain buying power for roads and avoid creating a new system that’s invasive, costly and erodes freedom, wouldn’t that be the right course to plot?

The real insidious nature of “vehicle miles traveled” approach

This less about funding and more about exerting control in an environment that is prone to chaos. If, as the Overseer of Highways, you could change the price on a particularly congested section of roadway because the supply of lanes is too low for the demand and collect more revenue purportedly to fund enhancements at that location, wouldn’t that be a good thing? Yes, but it comes with the price of causing a necessary commute for employment into a choice between taking another route (impacting your family time) or taking away funds used to feed, house, clothe the family. It’s social engineering at its most base and insidious.

Perhaps the seminal reason that this Big Brother approach is even being considered is to get around the Washington State Constitution. Article 2, Section 40 mandates that all gas tax receipts are used for roads. A Road Usage Charge would likely not be subject to that restriction.

Here’s the text of the relevant section of the Washington State Constitution:

Art. 2 Section 40 HIGHWAY FUNDS. All fees collected by the State of Washington as license fees for motor vehicles and all excise taxes collected by the State of Washington on the sale, distribution or use of motor vehicle fuel and all other state revenue intended to be used for highway purposes, shall be paid into the state treasury and placed in a special fund to be used exclusively for highway purposes.
Such highway purposes shall be construed to include the following:
(a) The necessary operating, engineering and legal expenses connected with the administration of public highways, county roads and city streets;
(b) The construction, reconstruction, maintenance, repair, and betterment of public highways, county roads, bridges and city streets; including the cost and expense of (1) acquisition of rights-of-way, (2) installing, maintaining and operating traffic signs and signal lights, (3) policing by the state of public highways, (4) operation of movable span bridges, (5) operation of ferries which are a part of any public highway, county road, or city street;
(c) The payment or refunding of any obligation of the State of Washington, or any political subdivision thereof, for which any of the revenues described in section 1 may have been legally pledged prior to the effective date of this act;
(d) Refunds authorized by law for taxes paid on motor vehicle fuels;
(e) The cost of collection of any revenues described in this section:
A program utilizing a vehicle miles traveled approach would not have these same ironclad restrictions on their usage, so it would clear the way for the funds being used for mass transit or other non-highway spending like trails for bikes and pedestrians.

This is a ruse to further subordinate highway spending to those who want you to get on light rail or a bus so that their own automobile commute is faster and more comfortable. These funds need to be spent enhancing capacity where possible, eliminating bottlenecks and even creating new routes for growing parts of the region.

References:

ESN pilot program story: https://evergreenstatenews.com/archives/86

Road Usage Charge pilot website: https://waroadusagecharge.org/

Washington State Transportation Commission website: http://wstc.wa.gov/

WSTC Schedule: http://wstc.wa.gov/Meetings/AgendasMinutes/default.htm

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