The politics of transportation revenue

The politics of transportation revenue
Feedback from the Statewide Transportation Needs Assessment Advisory Panel indicates a potential political fight over how any new transportation revenue should be handled. Photo: user4894991

The Statewide Transportation Needs Assessment Advisory Panel is looking at potential new taxes or fees to aid an underfunded system throughout Washington state, and a recent meeting and survey of members provides a view of the many facets of the debate. Some stakeholders view it as an opportunity to remove existing restrictions on current transportation revenue sources, such as the gas tax, allowing broader use of those dollars for transit services.  And the advisory panel survey also suggests that members view the tax as a way to alter behavior.

A challenge for the panel is determining the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on long-term transportation. While the state experiences a $700 million annual funding gap for maintenance and preservation, transit services have seen an incredible decline in ridership that could linger for years due to health concerns. The rise of telecommuting could also change how and when people travel, which raises questions about the connection between transportation revenue and users.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Government Affairs Director Johan Hellman told colleagues at a Aug. 19 meeting that “if you telecommute and you work from home…are you using transportation? I would argue that you probably are.” He added that even if telecommuters aren’t physically participating in the transportation system, they still use it to have things delivered to their homes.

Spokane Airports CEO Larry Krauter said: “we want stability (and) immunity from things like ballot initiatives.” He added that these sources should also account “for inflation, so future legislatures don’t end up with a situation where…it goes unadjusted for 10-15 years.”

The member survey found that 57 percent believe transportation funds should be generated from users, while 67 percent thought there should be a connection between the funding and what it is spent on. Yet, Washington Roundtable Vice President Neil Strege noted that a broader use with revenue would allow a carbon tax to fund transportation rather than environmental projects.

The members also overwhelmingly supported the idea that the primary consideration for new revenue is total money raised, with 36 percent in dissent.

On certain matters, the advisory members were in unanimous agreement, such as whether the state had a responsibility to aid jurisdictions that are unable to raise more local revenue and that any package with new projects should include funds dedicated to preservation.

There was also near unanimous agreement (87 percent) that the state should expand local revenue authority, though some members including San Juan County Councilmember Rick Hughes noted that “just because they’re given the authority doesn’t mean they will take it. We can’t solve all of our problems just by having an ability to tax our jurisdictions more, but it gives us more to work with.”

Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin agreed. “We need all the tools. I think very few cities will move new revenue initiatives, but we need tools to do this.”

The survey results also showed that 64 percent agreed that the revenue types should discourage or incentivize “behavior or outcomes we want to encourage.” However, Strege warned that approach would create “a system that focuses too much on incentivizing behavior and not raising money.”

Former state legislator and House Transportation Committee chair Judy Clibborn said “I didn’t like this question. If you could do incentives, not the ‘we’re going to change someone’s behavior’ piece, because one person’s behavior is different from another’s. You get into an almost parental role with this question. You could automatically be discouraging, but I would not want to put that out to the public – it’s red meat.”

One issue where a majority of members expressed opposition was whether a state gas tax replacement should be constitutionally protected so that revenue could only be spent on state highway projects; only 43 percent were in agreement on this point. The response drew remarks from Hughes, who said “I get very concerned when we start talking about replacing the gas tax,” adding that capital funds for ferry projects have been raided by the legislature in the past.

Against constitutional protection are members like Washington State Transit Association Executive Director Justin Leighton, who said “we shouldn’t be talking about a World War II-era type policy about 21st century type of funding. I would be disappointed that if we approve new revenue sources we’re slapping on something that came from the 1940s.”

Yet, Clibborn said protections will be needed to garner necessary support for a road usage charge (RUC) program to eventually replace the gas tax. “You won’t get support for a road usage charge if it’s opened up and not a replacement for the gas tax. That’s just the politics of it.”

Peninsula Truck Lines Inc. President Brent Vander Pol also favored retaining the 18th Amendment protections to any gas tax replacement. “It’s very easy for politicians to dip into funds that are tagged for something else and use them differently.”

The next advisory panel meeting is scheduled for Sept. 9.

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