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Originally published Saturday, February 23, 2013 at 4:00 PM

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Editorial: Proceed with caution on gas-tax funding for transportation

During the Great Recession, transportation funding took a back seat to other pressing matters. Now that revenue is back on the table, lawmakers must consider big questions.

Seattle Times Editorial

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HOUSE Democrats unveiled a proposal last week to raise $10 billion over the next decade for transportation projects statewide. This is a welcome first step in a long debate.

Spending taxpayer dollars merits careful scrutiny, but delaying the inevitable for another year or two — as a few senior Republicans are suggesting — may cost more in the long term. Projects take time to get off the ground. Some of Washington’s busiest highways are deteriorating. The state should take advantage of low constructions costs now and create jobs to boot.

House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, says there is bipartisan “interest” in a comprehensive plan. Support for a specific deal is another matter.

For now, there are more questions than answers, such as:

Can drivers afford a gas-tax increase? Clibborn is proposing a gas-tax increase over the next five years, starting at 2 cents per gallon and rising to 10 cents (for a total of 47.5 cents per gallon). Drivers are already pinching their pennies. The more they pay at the pump, the less money they may have to spend elsewhere.

Another consideration: Washington farmers, manufacturers and distributors producing the goods that need to get to market or the ports are concerned about yet another hit to their costs.

Is enough money earmarked to maintain and preserve existing roads? New highways are necessary, but business leaders argue they need the current infrastructure to be safe and more accommodating for moving goods and services. The Democrats’ proposed $631 million allocation toward state highway maintenance is far below the estimated $2.8 billion it would cost to repave and fix crucial routes, including Interstate 5.

What about the Highway 520 floating bridge — and tolling? A glaring omission from Clibborn’s plan is any revenue to complete the corridor from Montlake to I-5 via Portage Bay. She hinted that tolling Interstate 90 might cover the 520 bridge’s $1.4 billion shortfall.

However, this is a politically charged issue. It’s also not clear whether toll fees would generate enough to complete construction.

Would people tolerate a tax they repealed? Initiatives by Tim Eyman loom over lawmakers. First, voters passed initiatives in 1999 and 2002 that cut the motor vehicle excise tax (MVET). Clibborn’s plan would raise $2.1 billion by bringing back an annual tax of 0.7 percent of a vehicle’s value (or $140 on a $20,000 car).

Second, lawmakers are still waiting for a state Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of the voter-approved requirement that any tax increase have support of two-thirds of the Legislature. If it is overturned, the Legislature would need only a simple majority to impose the tax.

Republican leaders say any increase should be put up for a public vote, especially since voters reiterated their overwhelming support for the two-thirds rule in the November election. It was a strong signal to Olympia: Voters distrust lawmakers on tax matters.

Should bicyclists be charged a fee? A $25 charge on retail sales of bicycles worth $500 or more would generate only about $1 million over a 10-year period. Advocates say the fee would hurt small businesses and cycling saves the government money, but Clibborn argues the fee could disarm critics of bike-friendly transportation investments.

Should local governments be subsidized? Clibborn’s plan proposes direct grants to local governments to maintain roads and offers them options to increase car-tab fees and place measures on the ballot to support transit. Bus services statewide are reducing service or plan to. Cutting public transit hurts commuters and low-income residents without cars and increases traffic congestion.

Within the last decade, legislators have passed two other major transportation funding measures. The so-called Nickel package raised the gas tax by about 5 cents per gallon in 2003. Two years later, the Transportation Partnership Act increased it by another 9.5 cents.

Both measures were justified. The projects they funded are largely complete, but many other projects are overdue.

Now is the time for stakeholders — motorists, public transit riders, cyclists, and pedestrians — to look further down the road.

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