DOT plans meetings to discuss replacing fuel tax with road usage charge

  • State Highway 19, or Queen Kaahumanu Highway is heavily traveled. The Department of Transportation is planning a series of meetings to get input on a proposed road usage charge for the state. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — State residents will get a chance in coming weeks to give input during a series of meetings planned throughout the state about a concept to replace the state fuel tax with a road usage charge.

The state Department of Transportation meanwhile also has plans for a project to give vehicle owners an idea of what they’d pay under that kind of system compared to what they already pay in fuel taxes.

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“The reality is fuel tax revenue, which provides a third of state highways funding, continues to decrease as cars become more fuel efficient,” said Ed Sniffen, DOT deputy director for Highways. “We need to look at a long-term replacement for the gas tax that is sustainable and fair to all road users.”

The usage charge is being floated as a “revenue neutral replacement” to the current state fuel tax of 16 cents per gallon, according to a press release.

While the impact of moving from a per-gallon charge to a per-mile charge will vary from driver to driver, according to the website for the Hawaii Road Usage Charge Demonstration Project, “in general and looking at an overall average, under (road usage charge), everyone would pay the approximately same amount per mile driven as the average driver pays today in gas tax.”

Drivers also pay federal taxes (18.4 cents/gallon) and county taxes (19 cents/gallon) on gasoline purchases.

State fuel taxes represent the largest source of revenue for the Department of Transportation Highways Division, said DOT spokesperson Tim Sakahara, and all of the fuel taxes collected go into the Highways Division.

The state’s argument for studying road usage charges is that as residents continue to choose more fuel-efficient and alternative vehicles, drivers are using less gasoline, meaning they’re also paying less in gas taxes.

Although the idea is still in preliminary phases and any final proposal would have to be approved by the state Legislature, Sakahara said the meetings are a chance for the public to give input on the idea.

Three meetings about the concept are planned for Hawaii Island. An April 9 meeting is scheduled to take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority (NELHA) in Kailua-Kona, and a meeting at the Waimea School STEAM Center is scheduled for the following day at the same time. Details for a third Hawaii Island meeting on May 9 have yet to be announced.

There is also an online community meeting scheduled for April 18, during which residents can provide input and ask questions.

Sakahara said there will also continue to be discussions about the proposal as it’s under consideration and said the idea is “not a foregone conclusion by any means.”

Those interested in staying up to speed on the project can sign up for an e-newsletter at www.hiruc.org/stay-informed.

In 2016, the Department of Transportation announced the Highways Division was awarded close to $4 million from the Federal Highway Administration to study and demonstrate a road usage charge system, giving the state’s drivers a chance to experience how it would work compared to the current system and give feedback on the idea.

Starting later this year, vehicle owners will get a mailed report outlining how many miles they drove in the past year along with how much they might have paid in gas tax and what they might pay under a road usage charge. Vehicles’ mileage will be calculated based on odometer readings collected during annual safety checks, according to the project’s website, www.hiruc.org.

Given that it’s a research and demonstration project, no actual fees will be charged and no money will be owed.

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The website also says the department later plans to recruit volunteers willing to test automated ways to collect mileage, such as via plug-in meters.

Researchers will survey drivers on their preferences and for suggestions to be shared along with results of the study with policymakers as they consider the issue further.

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