Tax proposals likely for transportation funding

Tax proposals likely for transportation funding

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) more than a year ago warned that the state’s infrastructure was a “glidepath to failure.” Since that time, the state Joint Transportation Committee (JTC) has been looking at how to close an estimated 10-year gap in maintenance, repair and preservation. An 18-member volunteer advisory panel has now offered a list of possible new taxes to the JTC that would pay for the infrastructure, while at the same time calling for the legislature to clarify its role in the state’s overall transportation system.

Of potential top revenue sources, the highest ranked by the panel were:

  • A carbon pollution fee;
  • A road usage charge;
  • Electronic vehicle (EV) fuel economy rating; and
  • An air quality surcharge.

In addition to funding infrastructure repair, one of the revenue sources could be dedicated to replacing WSDOT fish culverts under a court injunction.

Former House Transportation Chair Judy Clibborn (D-41) is the co-chair of the advisory panel. She told the JTC at its Dec. 17 meeting that for a revenue package to work, lawmakers will have to move away from “the shiny object” mentality in which legislators focus primarily on securing funding for specific projects in their districts.

“It’s a very difficult sell as you’re working on a package. People have to go home and sell their districts on what they did. If we change our thinking, we might have to change how we do things,” she said, adding that “If we don’t reinvest in what we have, we won’t be able to maintain and preserve; we will be replacing them – which is very expensive, and it would use up the money we could have used for some projects.”

State highway projects are paid for in part by the state gas tax, which is constitutionally protected and can only be spent on state transportation projects. However, BERK Consulting Associate Sherrie Hsu told the JTC that major projects often rely on “a patchwork of sources that are often non-repeating. (It) takes more resources to assemble types of funding under different schedules and requirements.”

Although the advisory panel said the new revenue should be “dedicated to transportation” with transparency regarding how the money is spent, members also felt the state should clarify its role in supporting transit. BERK Consulting Principal Allegra Calder told the committee that changes “could include expanding local revenue authorities and providing direct financial and technical assistance.”

However, Hsu said the panel was divided over whether the state should revise its transportation policy goals – a question posed to the panel in the 2020 supplemental transportation budget.

The panel was also divided over whether new tax revenue should be protected in a similar manner as the state gas tax. Some transit advocates have called for either broader uses of the state gas tax or avoiding those restrictions for any new revenue.

Washington Policy Center Transportation Director Mariya Frost wrote in a message to Lens that “transit is a local function and does not need state funding. Drivers in eastern Washington shouldn’t have to pay for Seattle’s costly transit projects.”

JTC member and former Senate Transportation Committee Chair Sen. Curtis King (R-14) noted that “to me…a carbon tax will also end up being a fuel increase. Call it a ‘tax’ or whatever – it’s going to affect the cost of fuel.”

Governor Jay Inslee this week announced his 2021-23 budget proposal will contain a low carbon fuel standard (LCFS) that if enacted would also add to fuel prices.

JTC members such as Sen. Phil Fortunato (R-31) questioned whether funding could be acquired from existing taxes. He reiterated a proposal he has made in the past to use motor vehicle sales tax money to pay for transportation, an approach he says would allow revenue to keep up with inflation.

“That way we would have an indexed funding source that would increase over time,” he said. “I’d like to see a proposal…using some existing revenue that we have.” Senate Transportation Committee Vice Chair Rebecca Saldaña (D-37) remarked that “sometimes it just takes time for certain ideas to ripen.”

JTC member Rep. Tom Dent (R-12) asked whether additional money could be found if the state was “more efficient with our money.” Calder told him that the advisory panel examined that issue but “felt we don’t have insight” to make recommendations.

Frost also wrote that “part of the problem is the state doesn’t properly budget for maintenance, but a larger part of the problem is prioritization,” citing Seattle’s 2006 Bridging the Gap promise to reduce its maintenance backlog and address 335 miles. The last report in 2015 showed they had paved 225 lane miles.

“Maybe instead of putting the state into debt to build an inefficient ‘ultra’ high speed rail system – officials can prioritize that money to protect the resilience of our roads,” she wrote. “There are plenty of opportunities to move money from wasteful political monuments and projects like this to the things they say are important to public safety and mobility.”

A report with recommendations to the legislature is due by the end of the month.

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