British Columbia

Surrey drivers targeted for testing U.S. road pricing program

Looking to replace gas tax, Washington State experiments with charging fees for every mile driven

Bethany Lindsay - CBC News

September 15, 2017

Washington State is experimenting with road pricing as a replacement for the gas tax. (CBC)

Road pricing is still very much a hypothetical in Metro Vancouver, but dozens of Surrey-area residents will be getting a sneak peek next year as part of an experiment in Washington State.

The Washington Road Usage Charge Pilot Project is seeking between 50 and 200 people from Surrey and surrounding cities to volunteer as test drivers for a mobility pricing scheme meant to eventually replace the state's current gas tax.

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"We've kind of determined that it will generate the revenue needed and it is feasible," Reema Griffith, executive director of the Washington State Transportation Commission, told CBC News.

"The real test is will the public accept it and will it work for drivers on a daily basis?"

A gas tax replacement

The problem that Washington faces is a steep decline in gas tax revenues as cars become more fuel efficient and drivers switch away from vehicles powered by fossil fuels. The state's gas tax is constitutionally mandated to be used for roads.

"If that revenue starts to turn down, we face a real problem in terms of being able to take care of our infrastructure into the future," Griffith said.

The average personal vehicle in the state currently gets about 20.5 miles per gallon — approximately 8.7 kilometres  per litre. By 2035, fuel efficiency is expected to rise to an average of 35 miles per gallon, or about about 14.9 kilometres per litre.

"The result of that would equate to about a 45 per cent reduction in gas tax revenues for our roads," Griffith said.

Metro Vancouver is also weighing road pricing as an option for funding infrastructure projects and reducing congestion, something that has become particularly pertinent in recent weeks after the new B.C. government eliminated revenue-generating tolls on two bridges.

An independent commission began looking into the issue this summer.

No fees — yet

About 2,000 Washingtonians are expected to take place in that state's pilot project, and B.C. residents are being included so officials can test how to include out-of-state drivers.

"We realize there's a lot of traffic that comes down into Washington, and we don't want to suppress that, but we also don't want to lose the revenue that might come with that," Griffith said.

Because it's just a pilot project, no one will actually have to pay for the distance they drive. The theoretical charge will be 2.4 cents per mile — about how much the driver of an average Washington car pays in gas tax today.

The state is offering four ways for drivers to report their mileage, ranging from high-tech GPS tracking to the no-tech option of regular odometer checks.

"We realize that consumers are going to want a choice of how they would participate," Griffith said.

The year-long pilot is set to begin early next year, but Griffith doesn't expect a road-pricing scheme to come into effect for at least five years — or more likely, 10.

Of course, in public policy, there's no sure way to predict the future.

"If we see revenues decreasing at a rate we aren't prepared to deal with, we won't have much choice," Griffith said.

With files from Deborah Goble

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