Gas, car-tab taxes drive House Dems’ transportation plan
House Democrats propose a $10 billion transportation package that would gradually raise the gasoline tax to 47.5 cents a gallon within five years.
Seattle Times staff reporters
OLYMPIA — House Democrats rolled out a nearly $10 billion transportation package Wednesday that would boost taxes on gasoline, increase car tabs and even charge a bicycle fee to raise money.
The proposal would increase the state gas tax by 10 cents over five years, eventually reaching a total of 47.5 cents per gallon. Washington currently has the nation’s ninth-highest gas tax.
In addition, it would create a car-tab tax equal to 0.7 percent of a vehicle’s value — $140 for a $20,000 car.
There’s even a $25 sales fee on bicycles worth $500 or more that would raise $1 million over 10 years, a nod to motorists who complain that bicyclists don’t pay their fair share.
Overall, the package — likely to be debated for much of the legislative session — would plow billions of dollars into highway projects such as extensions of Highways 167 and 509, as well as Interstate 405 lanes, and ferry operations and terminals. It also would provide money to help build a new Columbia River bridge to Portland, widen Interstate 90 at Snoqualmie Pass and reduce Interstate 5 congestion around Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
House Democratic leaders want to try to pass a transportation package in the Legislature — or, if that doesn’t work, send a proposal to voters.
“The plan puts $10 billion to work and is investing in the future of the state,” said House Transportation Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island. “It will fund the projects that fight gridlock, improve safety and definitely promote economic development.”
But the initial proposal leaves out any money for the underfunded Highway 520 floating bridge. Clibborn said Wednesday she still expects tolls on the I-90 bridge to help close the 520 bridge’s $1.4 billion shortfall.
In addition, the plan offers no relief for the tolling crisis in the future Highway 99 tunnel. A 2009 law requiring $400 million in tolls for the Seattle tunnel has been gutted by reality, as state planners now figure they can raise at most $165 million through the tolls. Even at that, they would create a risk of traffic diversion into downtown streets.
The Democrats’ proposal sets aside around $1 billion for maintenance of state highways and local roads. There’s also money for public transportation and the State Patrol.
The plan offers King County Metro Transit the power to raise car-tab taxes by a County Council vote, or a citizen ballot, by an additional $70 per $10,000 of vehicle value; and the same power to Community Transit in Snohomish County, by a citizen ballot.
Metro might be able to raise $55 million a year this way, not quite a tenth of the annual operating budget. Earlier this year, General Manager Kevin Desmond warned of severe cuts, if state aid and a temporary $20 county car-tab fee expire in 2014 without replacement.
A coalition of business, labor and environmental groups is pushing the Legislature to advance some transportation package this session. Spokesmen for several groups called the House package a good start but expect it to change.
While there’s apparently broad support among interest groups, there’s no consensus in the coalition on the projects and services the package should pay for, or how to fund them.
Mike Ennis, government-affairs director for the Association of Washington Business (AWB), said his organization has concerns about a boost in the hazardous-substance tax, which is primarily paid by oil refineries. The tax would increase 0.3 percent, to 1 percent, to fund $897 million in road-related fish and stormwater projects.
Ennis said car-tab increases are also a concern, noting that Tim Eyman’s Initiative 695 pressured lawmakers to slash the statewide car-tab to $30 more than a decade ago. “Eyman is likely going to be lurking with any increase” approved by lawmakers, Ennis said.
Jeff Johnson, president of the Washington State Labor Council, said he likes the mix of projects including highways, transit and ferries, but would like to see more money overall.
“The coalition would like to work with (the House transportation chair) and others to see if we can’t beef that package up more,” he said.
Business groups on Wednesday also said they want to see more money set aside for maintenance of highways.
House Republican leaders said they saw little in the package they liked, and raised concerns about the size of the gas-tax increase.
Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, the ranking Republican on the House Transportation Committee, said the Legislature should put off consideration of a tax package.
“Our priority is that we need to spend the next two years drilling down into the cost drivers, and figure out how to make our tax dollars go further, and we should make sure our tax dollars go further before we reach further into the taxpayers’ pocket,” he said.
Democrats control the state House and the Governor’s Office. Republicans control the Senate.
Despite Democrats’ 55-43 House majority, they would need Republican votes to pass a tax package.
Under current state law, it would take a two-thirds vote in the state House and Senate to approve most of the funding proposals in the House package, including the gas tax and car tabs.
The state Supreme Court is currently considering a case that argues the two-thirds requirement is unconstitutional. Some Democrats want to push for the Legislature to approve a transportation tax package if the court throws out the supermajority requirements.
If the court upholds the law, Democrats say it will most likely have to go to voters.
Voters in urban Snohomish, King and Pierce counties in 2007 rejected a “Roads and Transit” measure to fund many of the same projects with car-tab and sales tax increases. A Sound Transit-only measure prevailed a year later.
Senate Transportation Committee co-chairman Curtis King, R-Yakima, said any package should go to the ballot, but he sees no need to do so this session because it’s not clear voters are convinced of the need.
“It’s a matter of – if we really go forward with a package – how do we inform the public to the point where they understand and are willing to support it? From where I stand, I don’t think that would be before 2014. And it might even be 2015 or 2016,” he said.
Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee did not say Wednesday whether he supported the specifics of the package. Rather, he said in a statement, “We can’t afford to not take action and this is a job I expect the Legislature to accomplish. I’ll be working with legislators on both sides of the aisle to craft a package that they can send to my desk for approval.”
Staff reporter Brian M. Rosenthal contributed. Garber reported from Olympia and Lindblom from Seattle. Andrew Garber: 360-236-8268 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or email@example.com