Foregoing road repairs has gone on long enough

March 10, 2013 

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that a recent poll said Washington voters don’t like the idea of adding a new transportation tax onto the price of gasoline, or reinstituting car tab fees, or paying higher tolls. We didn’t need a statewide poll to get that answer.

But ask the question a different way – Do you want the pothole in front of your house fixed? Would you like to see a solution to daily traffic congestion on Interstate 5 near Joint Base Lewis-McChord? – and the pollsters would have gotten a different answer.

To individual voters, the roads most needing repair are the ones they travel every day to get to work or move their goods to market.

The $10 billion transportation proposal tabled by state House Democrats last week would finance projects all over the state and pay for them with a variety of taxes and fees. It’s a plan that voters might support once they see the list of specific projects.

The proposal would increase the gas-tax in increments over 10 years, starting at 2 cents per gallon and topping out at 10 cents per gallon. They would bring back car tab fees, add a fee to sales of expensive bicycles and raise tolls.

Compared with estimates of up to $50 billion needed to repair the state’s busiest highways over the next 10 years, this seems like a modest proposal. Imagine the state of our highways in a decade if we do nothing now.

Most other states are facing the same squeeze between crumbling transportation infrastructure, and finding acceptable funding sources. Texas faces a $170 billion shortfall. California needs $70 billion.

As a West Coast state, we depend on the import/export trade through our many ports. And they, in turn, rely on efficient highway corridors. Traffic volumes have worn them out and created congestion points that delay the movement of goods to and from our ports.

The recession has forced us to forego necessary highway repairs, maintenance and improvements in recent years, but a day of reckoning is coming. Business and labor groups are supporting the House proposal because they know that failing to act now will ultimately put their jobs in peril and cost tax-payers more.

The Legislature should consider other funding options if the question comes down to whether voters will approve of a gas-tax increase to fund the transportation plan, rather than a debate over its necessity.

Given the recent state Supreme Court ruling tossing out the two-thirds requirement to raise taxes, lawmakers can review the estimated 500 tax loopholes – benefiting groups such as oil refineries, chicken farmers and newspapers – and close those that are no longer justified. It would generate billions in previously difficult to touch revenue.

One of the gross inequities of the two-thirds-vote rule for raising taxes was that it took only a simple majority vote to create a tax loophole, but a supermajority to close it. In the state Senate, that meant special interests had to muster only 17 votes to preserve their tax breaks.

That so-called tyranny of the minority has held our state back for too long.

By closing the most egregious tax loopholes, lawmakers could possibly fill the budget gap, fund K-12 education and meet the state’s minimum transportation needs without asking voters to pay as much, or at all.

Before asking for a gas-tax increase, the Legislature must consider eliminating unnecessary tax breaks. Doing nothing to repair the state’s failing highway system is not an option.

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