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Originally published Tuesday, December 13, 2011 at 8:45 PM

Raise $21B more for roads, task force says

A task force convened by Gov. Chris Gregoire has recommended the state raise an additional $21 billion over 10 years to spend on roads, bridges, buses, ferries and other transportation needs.

News Tribune

quotes "That's always going to be a difficult task," Port of Tacoma Commissioner and... Read more
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A task force convened by Gov. Chris Gregoire has recommended the state raise an additional $21 billion over 10 years to spend on roads, bridges, buses, ferries and other transportation needs.

State voters would likely have the final say on most of the taxes and fees that would pay for the package. A bipartisan cast of lawmakers will start working on the specifics next month with an eye to putting the question to voters on the November ballot.

House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, and other members of the task force acknowledge the difficulty of persuading the public to support a package, especially if lawmakers also ask voters to raise the sales tax in April or May to stave off education, health care and public-safety cuts.

"That's always going to be a difficult task," Port of Tacoma Commissioner and task-force member Don Meyer said of winning over voters, "but the reality is we have, particularly in the case of the gas tax, a broken system."

The state expects to collect far less than it once thought from the gas tax because of the economic downturn and the trend toward more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Yet the task force's recommendations for revenue lean heavily on gas taxes, even though it also recommends eventually exploring more exotic options, like a tax on miles traveled or on car emissions.

Task force members — drawn from government, business, labor and environmental groups — didn't itemize the revenue sources that would raise the $21 billion but agreed on a menu of possibilities, including:

• Adding 15 to 20 cents to Washington's 37.5-cents-a-gallon gas tax, raising $3.3 billion to $4.7 billion that could be used for maintaining roads and building new ones. Another approach would be to raise gas taxes anywhere from 2 to 22.7 cents, and then use that money to borrow up to $10 billion for new road projects.

• A 1 percent statewide tax on vehicle purchases to raise $4 billion, similar to what was used to pay for ferries, mass transit and other needs until 2000, when lawmakers repealed it a year after voters called for its demise.

• An increase of at least $15 and up to $50 in the weight fees for passenger cars, raising $757 million to $2.5 billion. The fees, charged when drivers renew their car tabs, range from $10 to $30 now.

• Tolls on roads and bridges.

• An increase in taxes on toxic substances such as oil, raising $1.8 billion.

• An assortment of new or increased fees such as for drivers licenses, electric vehicles and commercial trucks.

"They put everything on the table," said Gregoire, who plans to use the ideas to start forming her own recommendations next week.

Lawmakers need simple majority votes to raise fees unilaterally or to send a tax package to voters. But to raise taxes on its own without voters, the Legislature needs two-thirds majorities, which would be difficult to attain. Many in the Republican minority support asking voters to raise transportation taxes, but are unlikely to back a unilateral tax increase.

Members of the task force said lawmakers have a responsibility to find new ways to pay for basic maintenance of roads and other infrastructure without turning to the voters, who should only be asked to approve new projects.

But Clibborn said maintenance would be a key part of what voters will be asked to approve. Unlike previous tax packages, she said, this one would be less "project-oriented" and more "multimodal," including money for helping transit agencies and replacing ferries.

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