This year's session of the Legislature began with talk about asking voters for more tax revenue to pay for transportation needs - from road repair to highway mega-projects to struggling bus agencies - but it hasn't gone beyond talk.
Transportation advocates have found little support among lawmakers for going to voters this year with a proposal to raise their gas taxes or tap more exotic sources of revenue.
Staff of the Senate Transportation Committee have been crunching numbers, but chairwoman Mary Margaret Haugen said no revenue package is being written. It’s possible a proposal could emerge in the waning weeks of the session, she said, but it would take a major change of heart.
“Right now I don’t think there’s a lot of support for anything. It’s really discouraging, because there’s a huge need,” said Haugen, D-Camano Island.
The need is difficult to discern if you judged by the amount of construction happening now on Washington’s highways. Money is still flowing from the 2009 federal stimulus and the 2003 and 2005 increases in the state gas tax that now stands at 37.5 cents. The current two-year transportation budget is bigger than any in history.
But money from the 5-cent and 91/2-cent increases in the gas tax is tied up in paying off debt on projects, and more than 80 percent of that work is either under construction or starts this month, deputy transportation secretary David Dye said.
High spending will continue into the next two-year period, but much of it is on expensive replacements of the Route 520 floating bridge and Alaskan Way Viaduct, plus work on Interstate 405 and carpool lanes on Interstate 5 through Pierce County.
“The rest of it, the projects get finished over the next year or so and then that’s it. Basically we’re in a position where there’s no new starts,” Dye said.
Or as Duke Schaub, a lobbyist for the Associated General Contractors of Washington, put it: “At the end of 2013, everything falls off a cliff. There is nothing left.”
Officials figured before the recession that collections of gas taxes would keep climbing, but the economic downturn and the rise of more fuel-efficient vehicles scrambled those estimates. The state now expects to collect 19 percent less revenue over 16 years than it projected in 2007.
That makes it hard for supporters of more revenue to decide what should be raised. The gas tax is becoming less lucrative for the state, but it still overshadows all other sources, like ferry fares, license fees, and taxes on vehicle sales and rental cars.
WAIT TILL 2012?
But the state has a more pressing shortfall to worry about. You may have heard about it: the $4.6 billion gap in the state’s operating budget, which does not include transportation spending but does include schools and social services.
That’s the one House leaders want to focus on.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown wants a transportation package, but while Speaker Frank Chopp and other Democrats in the House say they would take a look at whatever the Senate might send them, they are focused on the problem with the operating budget.
It’s partly that lawmakers are sensitive to last November’s rejection at the ballot box of taxes on high earners and on soda pop and candy sales. Voters also passed a Tim Eyman-backed measure making it harder for lawmakers to raise taxes, the reason no one is talking about passing a transportation tax hike without a vote of the people.
Eyman said he suspects it’s “inevitable” that lawmakers will ask voters for transportation funding in 2012, after making what could be painful cuts, but the initiative promoter was critical of any effort to try it in 2011.
“It’s nuts to do it this year. It’s just crazy,” Eyman said. “How many different ways can the voters say ‘no’ over a period of a couple months for them to have a clue?”
Among those who are more bullish about voters’ appetite for taxes, there is competition for ballot space.
Some House Democrats want to ask voters to close tax breaks to save health or education programs, complicating any push for a road measure.
Some think transportation revenue might have a better shot at meeting voters’ approval next year anyway – if Democrats, who tend to be more friendly to taxes, turn out in droves to try to re-elect President Barack Obama.
“We’ve heard from more than one member of the Legislature who shall go unnamed,” said Schaub, the contractors lobbyist, “we’re not going to have a big package in 2011. It’s going to have to wait to 2012.”
NOT JUST ROADS
The contractors, eager for more road projects and the jobs they would bring, aren’t giving up on this year’s prospects. They’re part of the Transportation Partnership, a large coalition advocating for more revenue. It touts support from labor, business and governments like the cities of Federal Way and Puyallup. The Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber and the Port of Tacoma are on board.
Pierce County interests want any revenue package to include money for extending state Route 167 from Puyallup to the port.
The coalition is seeking money for more than just state road projects. They want funding for city and county projects, and for projects that improve freight transport, reduce stormwater pollution and remove fish barriers.
Transit and ferries are also on the list, but supporters of those modes of travel are looking for ways to find funding sooner to deal with immediate crises.
Haugen has proposed a 25-cent surcharge on ferry fares that would pay for construction of new boats.
She also wants a $100 annual fee on electric cars, whose owners aren’t buying gas and paying the fuel tax. The fee would end if the state ever moved to a system of charging motorists based on the miles they drive.
Haugen supports a per-mile tax that would avoid the declines the gas tax is seeing. But she said no per-mile tax would be part of any revenue package put together this year.
Environmentalists’ priority is mass transit. House Bill 1536, which has been approved by one House committee, would allow King, Snohomish and Pierce county transit agencies to charge drivers $30 annually through 2013 without voter approval. There’s another proposal in the works to provide longer-term funding contingent on local votes.
Pierce Transit isn’t pushing those, but might look to them as an alternative to deeper cuts in the wake of voters’ defeat this month of a proposed sales tax increase to preserve bus service.
But Haugen said she prefers to see mass-transit funding accomplished through a larger package that deals with all kinds of transportation.
Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/politics