Every time you fill your car with gas (assuming your car even runs on gas), you pay a state tax of about forty-nine cents per gallon. The gas tax is the state’s principal source of revenue for its road, bridges, and ferries. But even with the second-highest such tax in the country, the state struggles to meet its responsibilities of maintaining its transportation infrastructure.
The problem is only expected to become more serious. Mileage-per-gallon (mpg) rates are improving; industry forecasts predict that fuel efficiency will rise from its current 20.5 mpg to 35 mpg by 2035. As that happens, state gas tax revenue will decline by as much as 50 percent. Washingtonians will be lucky to see any basic maintenance on roads, bridges, or ferries by that point, to say nothing of new roads built.
Five years ago, foreseeing these shortfalls, the state legislature directed the Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC) to explore the possibility of replacing the gas tax with what is called a road usage charge, or RUC. The RUC is a per-mile charge that drivers would pay based on how much they use the state’s road system. In effect, it would turn the roads into a public utility, akin to other public utilities like electricity or water. Similar systems are being tested in Oregon and California.
But how best to implement the RUC? That was part of the legislature’s charge to the WSTC, and, through them, Jeff Doyle’s charge to about twenty undergraduates at the University of Washington last January.
Doyle is a Partner at D’Artagnan Consulting, a group dedicated to sustainable transportation funding. Doyle and his colleagues reasoned that any future RUC was likely to make use of a smartphone app, and he was contracted by the state to help develop one. “Originally, the idea was to have a developer’s hackathon,” Doyle says. “It would be a 48-hour sort of thing. We just had to find someone to host it.”
That was when CoMotion came up, and through them, the Mobility Innovation Center (MIC). “We pitched the idea of a hackathon, but CoMotion suggested why not do a capstone instead?” They thought that approach would better suit what Doyle wanted. So he and an advisor from the MIC went to several departments to propose the idea. “We weren’t sure we’d get a lot of interest,” Doyle says. “But the response was great.”
In the end, Doyle ended up with twenty-one students divvied among four teams: two teams from the Department of Human Centered Design and Engineering (HCDE), one from the Department of Electrical Engineering (EE), and one from the Information School (iSchool). He posed his research question to them: how could drivers use their own smartphone for the RUC in a way that enables them all control over their privacy? Then, he set them loose.
“What all the students did was remarkable,” Doyle says. “It was fascinating to see how the approaches differed by departmental philosophy.” One of the HCDE teams in particular, he said, “turned the question on its head.” The students recruited a small group of volunteers and walked them through the design process, asking them what they would want to see in an RUC app. “The participatory design approach was really exciting,” Doyle says. “Instead of government concocting a solution, and then trying to persuade others to logic of your solution, they worked with users throughout.” The team from the iSchool did almost everything, developing a fully-functioning app with a user-interface.
Both teams were awarded Best In Show at a presentation this past May, to go with a $5,000 prize. Now, Doyle and his colleagues will take all the team projects to the tech firms working on the state’s RUC app to see what they can roll into the final product. All of this presages a large-scale pilot project that will begin this fall, when the state plans to recruit about 2,000 volunteers to use the RUC app for the year, test-running Washington’s gas-tax-less future.