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Washington's pay-per-mile tax years out if approved

A pay-per-mile system was approved by the state's transportation commission, but that doesn't guarantee it will become a reality.

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Though a pay-per-mile system is a recommended replacement for Washington state's gas tax, it's not guaranteed to happen and even if it does, it would be years from being fully implemented. 

The Washington State Transportation Commission will send their list of recommendations to the Legislature, Governor Jay Inslee, and Federal Highway Administration on a proposal to replace the gas tax with a pay-per-mile system by Jan. 13. It will be up to lawmakers to decide if the gas tax will be phased out. 

If approved, it would take years before a pay-per-mile system is fully in place, according to the Transportation Commission. The commission is recommending a "slow and gradual approach" to what is officially referred to as a Road Usage Charge. That would include a start-up phase that would include vehicles that pay little or no gas tax - plug-in electric and hybrid vehicles that pay flat fees regardless of miles driven. 

That start-up phase where the state developed and tested the pay-per-mile system would continue for "at least fire years" before full implementation, according to a commission presentation. It could be 10 years or more before full implementation as the state reworks funding streams to programs that lean on the gas tax. 

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A gradual approach would allow the state to implement privacy protection measures, as well as assess potential equity impacts, reporting options, cross-border travel, and reducing operational costs.

The state began looking at pay-by-mile in 2012.

The latest round of research includes results of a 2,000 driver/taxpayer study of people around the state. In it, those who conducted the study found that 68% of drivers preferred a pay-by-mile system and 19% wanted to stick with the gas tax.

The study simulated the use of various pay-by-mile systems, but did not employ the use of real dollars. Pay-by-mile options involve using a plug that goes into the on-board diagnostic port, typically located under the steering wheel portion of the dashboard, or by phone apps. 

The current Washington state gas tax per gallon is 49.4 cents. That’s well over the federal excise tax of 18.4 cents per gallon for gasoline and 24.4 cents per gallon for diesel fuel. 

With more electric vehicles and hybrids on the roads, the state is concerned the gas tax eventually won’t be enough to keep building and maintaining roads and bridges in the future.

Washington state recently announced hybrid and electric car owners will start paying an annual $75 car tab fee to finance electric car charging stations.