Washington state is at a transition point when it comes to paying for our aging transportation infrastructure and getting new projects in place to accommodate growth and address increased congestion along the Interstate 5 corridor.
The most recent estimate for transportation needs – everything from state highways to ferries, from local government projects to public transportation – amounts to a staggering $200 billion over the next 20 years.
Yet the state is locked into an antiquated tax structure to pay for transportation needs – a system that is heavily reliant on a 371/2-cent-per-gallon state gasoline tax.
The gas tax simply isn’t cutting it. Receipts are on the decline – primarily the result of higher fuel efficiency standards, reduced travel and gasoline prices that are edging their way toward $4 a gallon.
State transportation planners are trying to cover increasing demands for new projects with a tax that’s slowly evaporating. Sixty-four percent of transportation funding depends on people putting fuel in their vehicles, yet transportation planners and public transit advocates are doing all within their power to drive down the time we spend behind the wheel.
In this transition between the gas tax and something else, we see transportation leaders in the state Legislature scrambling for a new way to do business and wean the state transportation budget off its continued reliance on a tax on fossil fuels.
It’s why you hear about a possible gas-tax vote next year, but also why we see proposals to expand tolling, raise ferry fares, let commuters buy their way into high-occupancy-vehicle lanes and follow through on pilot projects to determine whether it makes sense to switch to a funding method in which motorists pay by the miles they travel versus the amount of gasoline their vehicles consume.
Anyone who has driven anywhere in this state in recent years can testify to the incredible amount of money that has been poured into transportation projects. Voters approved a 5-cent-a-gallon gas tax in 2003 and agreed to an additional 9.5 cents a gallon in 2005. We’ll be paying off the construction bonds with those receipts for decades.
But the 421 projects – amounting to $16 billion – are about 80 percent complete. The remaining projects will be complete in the next four years.
That’s why we’re hearing preliminary conversations about a new revenue package for transportation.
The state Senate’s $9 billion transportation budget proposal for the next two years tackles about 700 projects, very similar to the House plan. “Any investment we make in transportation returns in jobs,” said Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee.
As the Washington State Transportation Commission’s 20-year plan says, maintaining and preserving that infrastructure must be the top priority in these austere budget times. In hearings around the state as they drafted the plan, commission members heard similar messages: preserve what we have, increase accountability in transportation spending, respond to new technology, and in more practical terms, invest in public transit, have communities focus on sidewalks and trails, and work collaboratively across jurisdictions to connect transportation systems – buses with ferries, planes with rail service.
We are pleased to see that the 20-year plan is driving legislation in Olympia today and we are delighted to see increasing conversations about moving away from a reliance on the gas tax to more creative sources tied to consumer use of transportation resources.
For example, it’s good to see Haugen talking about charging owners of electric cars a $100 licensing fee to make up for lost gas tax dollars from those drivers. Haugen also floated a proposal to add a 25-cent surcharge on every ferry fare to put into a fund to build future ferries.
The message to motorists is simple: We’re in a period of transition – away from reliance on the gas tax to something yet undefined, but likely something that looks a lot more like a user fee where drivers pay for what they use and when they use it.
The transportation infrastructure in this state is the backbone of commerce and the cornerstone of our economic development efforts. According to Latisha Hill, a member of the transportation commission, 46 percent of all jobs in Washington state are tied to the transportation network.
It’s imperative that we maintain what we have, make improvements where needed and find a reliable funding source that guarantees a strong transportation infrastructure.