Public weighs in on state DOT’s proposed road usage charge demonstration project

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Ging Ging Liu Fernandez, project consultant; Don Smith, state Department of Transportation Hawaii Island district engineer; and Jeff Doyle, project consultant, discuss a road usage charge demonstration project Thursday at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald office in Hilo.

State Department of Transportation officials had their last informational meeting on a road usage charge demonstration project Thursday evening in Hilo.

The concept involves motorists paying for each mile driven rather than a fuel tax to maintain state highways and bridges. It is being driven by the adoption of electric and more fuel-efficient vehicles, which officials say reduces fuel tax revenue.

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About 30 Hawaii Island residents attended the meeting, the last of 14 held throughout the state, with concerns and comments mainly focused on how such a system would impact long-distance commuters and those on a tight budget.

“The people out there, they are not trying to make a living,” one man commented. “They are trying to survive.”

In response, representatives from DOT and a consultant said the intent is to make a charge, if eventually adopted, equal to the cost of the state’s fuel tax of 16 cents per gallon for most people. A road usage charge would replace the state’s fuel tax rather than be an additional fee on top of it.

As an example, a motorist driving 15,000 miles a year currently pays $141 in state fuel taxes if they drive an F-150 truck, presenters noted. The owner of a vehicle that gets 22 miles per gallon, which they said is the state’s average, pays $109 a year, while the owner of an electric vehicle pays $0 in fuel taxes.

Under a road usage charge, they would pay the same for each mile driven. If the fee was 3/4 of a penny per mile, they would all pay $109, officials said.

Ging Ging Liu Fernandez, a consultant on the project, said that could save long-distance commuters money, depending on their vehicle.

Individual motorists could get a better idea of how such a program would affect them starting this fall, when they begin receiving a report based on how much they drove between annual safety inspections. That would tell them how much they paid in fuel tax and how much they could pay under the proposed system.

That also will include a survey so DOT can gain additional input.

After that, DOT plans to start a volunteer pilot program next year involving as many as 2,000 motorists. Miles driven could be tracked using an electronic device, as is done under a similar program in Oregon, or through annual safety checks.

In addition to the state fuel tax, motorists pay 18.4 cents per gallon in federal taxes and, as of July 1, will pay 23 cents per gallon to Hawaii County.

Officials say a road usage charge could make it more equitable as it is based on how much people drive rather than how much fuel they consume. Liu Fernandez acknowledged some see it as an additional cost for electric vehicles, which don’t currently pay the fuel tax.

The three-year project, funded with a $4 million federal grant, ends in August 2021. At that point, a report would be given to the state Legislature.

Don Smith, DOT’s Hawaii Island district engineer, said such a program could help the state get ready for 2045, when it aspires to use only clean energy. He emphasized no decisions have been made.

“By 2045, I won’t have a gas tax, so I won’t have a roadway fund, if we continue along that pace,” Smith said in an interview.

He added, “At least now we can look into the future and see there’s an issue, and go out to the public and get their input.”

However, the Legislature isn’t waiting for the study to be done to address that issue. On April 30, it passed a bill adding a $50 registration surcharge fee to electric vehicles to support the highway fund.

The bill requires Gov. David Ige’s signature to become law.

If a plug-in device is used under a road usage charge system, Liu Fernandez said the technology could allow for miles driven on private roads to be excluded from the fee. When asked about privacy, she said the state would not see exactly where a driver has been, only how much they drove on public versus private roads.

One person noted it could make it harder for them to budget if they have to pay the fee all at once rather than little by little at the pump. Smith said that’s something that is being taken into account.

The state receives about $275 million a year in revenue for its highway fund. Of that, about $83 million comes from its fuel tax. Vehicle registration and weight taxes contribute $125 million combined.

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Smith said state fuel tax revenue began to decline in 2017.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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