Rep. Joe Schmick: Taxing per mile punishes rural residents

As Washington state seeks to find a financial solution to fund road construction projects, address backlogs in transportation maintenance and preservation needs, and fix crumbling infrastructure like bridges, one idea that has gained traction (pun intended) is the vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax.

The VMT is a fee charged to drivers based on the number of vehicle miles traveled, regardless of fuel efficiency. Typically, a user-based approach is a more fair and equitable way of levying fees to cover startup and maintenance of a service or product. However, in the case of the VMT, it presents significant problems for rural residents who depend heavily on their vehicles for daily living in less-populated areas, usually with little to no public transportation option.

Rural residents must travel much further to access necessities like education, health care, and groceries. Going to a grandchild's school sporting event can be more than an hour away. Community events or helping a friend or family member can also set the odometer spinning.

Living where we do, our vehicles are our lifeline, period. They are an essential part of our daily lives and interacting with the community around us.

Rural life is a choice, yes. We take the joys along with the struggles, willingly. But we shouldn't be punished unnecessarily by a state that has boxed itself into a corner when it comes to transportation funding.

Perhaps what's most concerning about the MVT tax proposed by Democrats in Olympia is the fact that, unlike the current gas tax, the new money generated would not be protected by the 18th Amendment to the Washington State Constitution.

The 18th Amendment says that all monies collected through the gas tax must be spent on highways, which could be bridges, new construction, or even highway maintenance. Without this protection, the MVT tax collections could be used for anything the majority party in the Legislature deems fit.

If the gas tax is going to be replaced by the MVT tax, it must be protected by the 18th Amendment to ensure future legislators are not tempted divert transportation dollars to the issue du jour.

The Democrat VMT tax proposal this year is House Bill 1832. I encourage concerned citizens to visit and navigate to the bill section of the website. Once you are on the specific site for this bill, you can leave comments on the bill by clicking the icon on the righthand side of the page that reads “comment on this bill.”

Washington does have a serious issue with funding the transportation needs of a growing state. The rise in electric vehicles, which pay no gas tax at all, and the escalating costs of per-mile highway construction in our state have caused much-needed projects to be delayed or completely ignored.

Policy makers and budget writers in Olympia should be looking at why it costs so much to build roads and bridges in Washington as compared to neighboring states. We should be looking at the costs and timeframes for the permitting process. We should ask the drivers of $100,000 Teslas to pay their fair share to access our roads and highways. And, the state Department of Transportation should be focused on building capacity and maintaining safety, not worrying about climate change, equity, and inclusion.

Yes, Houston, we do have a problem. But taxing by the mile traveled isn't the solution. Lawmakers need to put this proposal in the junkyard where it belongs and focus on transportation funding solutions that don't negatively impact residents solely based on where they live.

(Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, represents the 9th Legislative District and serves on the House Appropriations Committee.)

State Representative Joe Schmick, 9th Legislative District
426B Legislative Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
(360) 786-7844 | Toll-free: (800) 562-6000