As cars become more fuel efficient, state legislators are looking for ways to replace funding for road construction and maintenance that is currently provided by the state gas tax. If the Road Usage Charge (RUC), which would charge drivers a per-mile fee, is to be a viable long-term gas tax replacement, it must be constitutionally required to be used for highway spending only, like the current gas tax.
Unfortunately, the Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC), which previously recommended constitutional protection of RUC money under Washington’s 18th Amendment, unanimously voted in December to amend and effectively weaken its 2020 recommendation to state that RUC revenue should be “dedicated to preservation and maintenance of highways.” The change is significant, not semantic, as it eliminates the higher standard of constitutional protection that the commission previously recommended, which would leave RUC revenue vulnerable to be shifted away from highways.
House Bill 1832, which would impose a voluntary 2.5-cent per mile charge with a 2030 target for mandatory implementation, reflects the commission’s new recommendation. The bill states RUC proceeds “must be used for transportation system preservation and maintenance and must be deposited in the Road Usage Charge account.”
This language is deceptive in that it does not actually guarantee RUC money will be protected long-term for highway system improvements. Future legislatures could simply raid and transfer the money to other modes and projects, as is common practice today. As one of many examples, the Public Works Assistance Account, an excellent program whose purpose is to help local government build important infrastructure projects, has been routinely raided over the years, with its funding redirected to the general fund.
In 2019, the commission correctly stated that if an RUC is to replace a gas tax, it should be “designed, implemented and the proceeds expended subject to Amendment 18.” A broad coalition of more than 100 businesses, labor unions, three dozen chambers of commerce, and associations all agreed and signed on to a letter supporting that decision last year. The Association of Washington Business (AWB), Washington Trucking Associations, Washington Policy Center, AAA, United Parcel Service (UPS), and countless others agreed that the “Legislature has a long history of sweeping funds for other uses and the constitutional protection is the gold standard in ensuring drivers that those dollars are not at risk.”
The only way to truly ensure that revenue from a per-mile charge is expended on roads — which includes maintenance and preservation — is through the same constitutional protection that exists for the state’s gas tax.
More than 7,000 lane miles of pavement across the state are due for preservation work, and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) can repair just 750 lane miles per year with current revenue. More than 100 bridge decks are due or past due for repair.
There is also the reality of growing traffic congestion, which cost the trucking industry nearly $75 billion in 2016 and wasted nearly 1.2 billion hours of productivity. That means the trucking industry consumed an additional 6.87 billion gallons of fuel, resulting in 71.3 million metric tons of excess carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
Despite having received billions from the federal government in CARES Act funding and other grants, and the recently passed Climate Commitment Act to support transit, some advocates hope to divert the funding to transit and other non-highway projects. This insatiable desire for funding from accounts that cannot afford to be diluted represents a failure to recognize that roads serve not just drivers, but transit riders, freight movers and emergency responders whose mobility, safety and access is critical to a healthy economy. It is deeply shortsighted and harmful to siphon highway money for political and non-highway projects, particularly when state roads face a multibillion-dollar maintenance backlog.
Rather than wishfully dedicating money to an unprotected spending account, lawmakers should advocate for full constitutional protection of Road Usage Charge revenue so that it is secure for critical road and bridge improvements that will accommodate demand and support economic activity in the decades to come.