Residents speak out on possible road usage charge

  • Goats cross Highway 190 near the Daniel K Inouye Highway turnoff. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — While some residents say they could see how an idea for a road usage charge could work as a “revenue neutral replacement” for the existing state fuel tax that helps fund state road projects, not all of them are so confident in the state’s ability to manage such a switch.

“I wouldn’t even really have a problem if it goes down the way they ideally want it to,” said Holualoa resident Lylas Moore after Tuesday’s meeting. “But I can’t see how it would function smoothly.”

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Moore was one of a little more than a dozen people to attend a community meeting the Hawaii Department of Transportation hosted Tuesday night in Kailua-Kona. Another meeting is scheduled for tonight in Waimea with a third meeting scheduled for the island’s east side next month.

Prior to the meeting, Moore said a road usage charge could unfairly burden Hawaii Island’s drivers.

“It’s rural here,” she said. “Everyone has to drive to work.”

There aren’t yet any concrete plans to change the way drivers are taxed to help fund state road projects, and any final proposal would need to be approved by the state Legislature. Tuesday’s meeting came as the state continues to research the possibility of swapping the fuel tax for a road usage charge and gauge drivers’ taste for the proposal.

“What we’re looking at is just replacement. We’re looking at maintaining what we have, which for me right now would be the best case,” said Donald Smith, Hawaii Department of Transportation district engineer for Hawaii Island, in reference to the funds that make up the largest source of revenue for the agency’s Highways Division. “If I could just not lose any more, it would be cool.”

Currently, drivers pay 16 cents per gallon in addition to federal taxes (18.4 cents/gallon) and county taxes (19 cents/gallon) on gasoline purchases. But as drivers continue choosing more fuel-efficient and alternative fuel vehicles, they’re using less gasoline, meaning they’re paying less in taxes.

The road usage charge is being floated as a revenue neutral swap for the fuel tax.

Given a vehicle that gets 22 miles to the gallon and goes 15,000 miles a year, a driver would pay $109 a year in current state fuel taxes, said Travis Dunn, managing partner at D’Artagnan Consulting, which is helping DOT with the study and demonstration. To keep the potential swap revenue neutral with a net difference of zero dollars, it’s also what a typical driver might pay under a road usage charge.

Drivers of electric vehicles, who don’t pay any fuel taxes, and those who drive very fuel-efficient/hybrid cars would pay more under a road usage charge, while some vehicles, Dunn said, would have drivers actually pay less than they do now in fuel taxes.

Later this year, said Dunn, vehicle owners will start getting customized reports mailed to them detailing how many miles they drove and how much they might pay under a road usage charge. Mileage will be calculated based on odometer readings collected during annual safety checks.

Because it’s a research and demonstration project, no actual fees will be charged, and there’s no need to pay anything for that report.

“The currency of this project is your feedback,” Dunn said. “So all we’re continuing to do here is to provide personalized information about the type of vehicle that you drive and what the impacts would be to your personal situation so that you can judge for yourself and provide feedback to the state about your preferences.”

But some of those in attendance Tuesday night weren’t so confident in the state’s ability to manage such a system, and said so at Tuesday’s meeting.

“The amount of effort for the administration of this program seems really high,” said Waikoloa resident Sara Kobayashi.

She said the numbers seem to make sense as an “even swap” for the fuel tax, but said she had a couple concerns, including the ability of people to pay a lump annual fee instead of paying each time they fill up at the pump.

“Right now, it’s not more money based on your numbers,” she said. “But there’s all kinds of variables here that are kind of scary.”

Scot Urada, project manager with the Hawaii Department of Transportation responded saying her questions and concerns were valid, saying the agency wants to be sure those points — along with every other concern raised throughout the series of meetings — are considered throughout the process.

Mattson Davis said after the meeting that he thinks the road usage charge could work, but emphasized that there’s a much bigger picture to consider when it comes to roads and said there’s a need to look at how all factors on the county, state and federal levels interact as well as how they can all work together.

“I think we should step back,” he said, “because I think that if we make a decision just on fuel to be ‘equal to,’ I think we’re going to be right back at the table looking at weight and back at the table looking at visitors, car rental stuff and all that — and people screaming for bigger, better roads.”

Davis added that he’s confident that those working on the project are being careful and diligent in considering the idea, encouraging them to “widen the scope a little bit, widen their options.”

Tonight’s meeting is scheduled for 5:30-7:30 p.m. at the Waimea School STEAM Center.

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Another meeting is scheduled for May 9 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at the AJA Veterans Hall in Hilo.

An “e-Townhall” is also scheduled for April 18 — with more details to come —during which residents can give input and ask questions.

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