DOT looks to switch from gas tax to road usage charge for road maintenance funding

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One third of the state’s funding for road and bridge maintenance comes from our 16 cents-per-gallon gas tax. There’s an intuitive logic to it: those who drive the most cause the most wear and tear on the roads, and since you need gas in order to drive, those who drive the most also buy the most gas. This seems fair on the surface: why should someone who never drives pay as much for highway upkeep as someone who commutes every day?

That rationale does not hold up anymore, however — at least not according to the Hawaii Department of Transportation. “In Hawaii, the gas tax is one of the largest sources of state road funding, and revenue is declining,” said HDOT Director Jade Butay in a press release. Cars have become “more fuel efficient and drivers buy less gas, while the costs of maintaining and enhancing roads and bridges grow more expensive.”

This poses a challenge, especially when you consider who is able to take advantage of today’s top-of-the-line fuel economy, and who is not.

“The gas tax was once a fair way to assess a person’s use of the transportation system,” the HDOT press release states. “As new cars grow ever more fuel efficient, this is no longer the case. Now, some drivers pay significantly more than others for their use because they cannot afford to upgrade their vehicles. On average, this disproportionately impacts rural residents and low-income drivers.”

What, then, is the solution?

In 2016, the HDOT received a federal grant of $3.988 million for a three year project to look into transitioning from a gas tax to a Road Usage Charge (RUC), which charges drivers based on how much they drive instead of how much gas they buy. From the press release: “The RUC study allows us to see if there are systems that provide more parity, so everyone pays their share based on usage.” The study began in 2018, and Hawaii is one of 12 states exploring the feasibility of implementing a RUC.

Here’s how it will work: starting this month, thousands of vehicle owners across the state will be mailed driving reports from the HDOT. If you get this report, you are asked to fill out an online questionnaire at www.hiruc.org to provide input. The report is not a bill. No payment is required. Here is an example of the report for gas vehicles; here is one for electric vehicles.

Today’s press release continued: “The first set of driving reports will go out to approximately 50,000 households in November. Starting in January and continuing throughout 2020, owners of about half a million vehicles will receive the driving reports and be asked to take the online questionnaire.

Feedback from the driving reports will help further refine the research before the final phase of the demonstration involving approximately 2,000 volunteers is launched across the state in 2020.”

“Even if the research indicates the RUC is a feasible alternative to the gas tax, discussions with states who have been working on this for many years indicate that establishment of a new system could take up to 10 years, said HDOT Deputy Director Ed Sniffen.

Residents are encouraged to visit www.hiruc.org to learn more about how a RUC could possibly work, and what to expect in the coming months.

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