WA’s pay-per-mile tax is not the culture war we need right now

Testimony to the state Legislature in Olympia is signaling that a big front in the culture wars may be forming around a seemingly benign object: the electric car.

I know, some of you are rolling your eyes. They’re zippy and cool and battery-operated, what’s the big deal?

But just the side issue of how to pay for the state’s roads, as more electric cars deplete the state’s gas tax revenues, is inciting some incendiary reactions from the public of late.

“This is … un-American,” one driver fumed about a bill asking car owners to report their odometer readings annually so the state could eventually implement a pay-per-mile tax.

“We are 3,000-plus really angry taxpayers, and we are against this bill!” said another.

“This is an insult to our dignity and our liberty,” said a third testifier about being asked to report his annual mileage. “I will be encouraging mass non-compliance.”

There was so much testimony, much of it negative, that a hearing on a bill to establish a “road usage charge” system for electric cars had to be carried over to a second day.

What the state is wrestling with, and the public is emoting about, is the coming end of the internal combustion engine. Obviously we are a long way from that. But make no mistake: When it comes to cars, it’s already starting to happen.

Washington state just passed a threshold in which fewer than 80% of new cars sold were gas-only (meaning neither battery electric nor hybrid). In recent months, the figure has been 78%, according to the state Department of Licensing. Only three years ago, more than 90% of new cars sold were gas-only.

So even though any changeover to electric seems glacial, it’s actually happening faster than people think. If electric car adoption were only to continue at the current growth rates, about half of all new cars sold in the state would be electric by the end of the decade.

The state then is under pressure to find a new way to pay for roads, as those drivers won’t be paying the 49-cent-a-gallon gas tax. Legislators seem hellbent on instituting a pay-per-mile scheme. But the rub is that there’s no good way to track how many miles everybody drives.

You either have to monitor it with GPS, or make people self-report their mileage. Cue the testimony about prying odometer readings from cold, dead driving gloves.

We’re all being tracked by our phones anyway, right? So the state is assuming we’ll all get used to having our driving monitored eventually.

But one testifier, Kelly Wright of Marysville, said the real problem isn’t the Big Brother concerns. It’s that Washingtonians drive an estimated 62 billion miles a year, and keeping track of all that will be staggeringly expensive.

“It turns out the gas tax was one of the best ideas there ever was,” Wright told lawmakers. “It costs the state virtually nothing to collect, and it’s virtually impossible for drivers to cheat on it.”

A study of pay-per-mile pilot projects in six states found that the administrative costs ranged from 5% to 40% of the total revenue. (The 40% figure was for a 2017 trial in Oregon.) In Washington state’s various road-usage fee experiments, collection expenses averaged around 10%.

But gas taxes cost only about 0.25% to collect. So we’re looking at a new system that could be anywhere from 20 times to more than 100 times pricier.

“It’s not going to work,” Wright told lawmakers, also citing all the possibilities for cheating, and how costly enforcement could also be.

I agree with this. I’m all for a good culture war. But not if it ramps up government waste and gets in the way of speeding the transition away from fossil fuels.

The simplest, most efficient way to get electric car owners to pay for roads is to charge them a flat fee every year when they renew their tabs. This is what the state is already doing — without touching off a huge fight or bloating up the bureaucracy.

There are 8 million vehicles in this state that rack up about $1.2 billion a year in gas taxes — an average of $150 per vehicle. So an annual “road maintenance fee” on electrics wouldn’t even need to be that big to replace the lost gas tax. No monitoring, no fight. (Well I’m sure Tim Eyman would like a word, but what else is new?)

The only change I’d make is to charge a sliding scale based on a car’s weight. Heavier cars are more dangerous and wear out the roads faster, plus they’re worse for the environment (even when they’re electric). Jonesing to buzz around in that 4.5-ton electric Hummer that President Joe Biden posed in recently? Fine, but your road usage charge will be twice that of a Tesla.

Monitoring people’s mileage is a needless political mess. If we’re going to have a culture war, let’s at least have one over something worth fighting about: the ginormous size of American cars.

Bessie Venters

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