Pilot pay-by-mile road usage charge to begin in Washington in January

The Washington State Transportation Commission plans to start a pilot project for a pay-by-mile road usage charge on Jan. 2. The commission is looking for volunteers for the yearlong project.

It will test the idea of a replacement for the gas tax, which is becoming a less reliable way to pay for roads as cars become more fuel-efficient. 

"We're looking at it largely because we have a looming revenue problem in the future," said Reema Griffith, the transportation commission's executive director.

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Griffith said 2,700 people have signed up for the pilot project so far.

"We're hoping to get around 6,000 people to sign up, so 2,000 can be selected that will really represent the diversity of Washington state," Griffith said.

For the test, volunteers will simulate paying 2.4 cents per mile, the equivalent of the gas tax for a 20 mpg car.

Washington's gas tax is 49.4 cents per gallon.

The options for reporting mileage in the pilot project range from a GPS device that charges drivers only when they're on public roads to an odometer reading with no GPS tracking.

New research done for the state shows a majority of people in Washington oppose a road usage charge.

Privacy was a big concern for people testifying Tuesday at the state transportation commission.

"We already feel like the boot is on our neck. Now we're tracking movement," said Raylene Scott, from the Libertarian Party of Kitsap County.

Olympia resident Richard Russell pointed to the recent Equifax breach and asked, "How secure is this data going to be? Is someone going to breach it and know who has gone where? This becomes kind of a Big Brother issue."

Griffith explained the reason for the option that includes GPS tracking.

"We want to know that you're in the state of Washington and that you're on a public road," Griffith said. "We don't really care where you go on a daily basis. We're going to collect total miles driven, and we're going to validate that you were in state and that's it."

Washington is working with Oregon, Idaho and British Columbia to test a road usage system near state lines.

The transportation commission will report back to the Legislature in 2020 about how the pilot project worked.

Lawmakers will then decide whether to pursue a road usage charge.