July 1, 2005 in City

Tax increase pumps up gas prices

By The Spokesman-Review

Don’t blame the oil companies if you’re paying more at the pump today.

July 1 marks a 3-cent bump in Washington’s gas and diesel tax, bringing it to 31 cents per gallon.

Today’s increase is the first phase of a 9.5-cent boost over the next four years.

The disparity between what Eastern Washington will pay and what it will get in the way of highway improvements has helped fuel efforts to repeal the tax, said Sheryl McGrath, who is helping coordinate the Spokane area Initiative 912 effort for the group Nonewgastax.com.

“The people in Spokane aren’t going to be paying any less money, but they’re seeing far less for what they’re contributing,” McGrath said.

Of the $8.5 billion in projected new gas tax revenue, $4 billion will be spent in King County. Washington’s ferries will get $185 million.

Spokane drivers will be paying in part for projects in the Seattle area, chief among them replacing the Alaskan Way viaduct and the Highway 520 floating bridge. Both require serious, and expensive, safety fixes.

Meanwhile the $200 million set aside for Spokane County is just 2 percent of the total gas tax take.

Lily Eng, spokeswoman for the pro-gas tax group Keep Washington Rolling, says people shouldn’t look at the tax as an East versus West issue.

Keep Washington Rolling, a coalition of businesses, unions and other organizations, is fighting the I-912 effort.

“We have to remember that our transportation system is one system,” said Eng. An Eastern Washington farmer may rely on Central and Western Washington highways to get his product to market.

“Yes, Seattle efficiency with commerce affects Spokane, but I think there are some inequities there,” said McGrath. “Spokane is shortchanged.”

It’s not as if Spokane is being left out in the cold, said Eng.

“Nobody’s going to look at $201 million and say that’s chump change. It’s not,” she said.

Funds have been earmarked to purchase right-of-way for the North Spokane corridor, to replace the Highway 290 bridge over the Spokane River, construct a railroad bridge and lower the auto crossing at Park Road and build a bridge over the railroad tracks at Havana, among other projects.

“The gas tax is a user tax. The more you use it, the more you pay. The less you use it, the less you pay,” Eng said.

The 3-cent gas tax increase will cost the average Washington driver 41 cents more per week, she added.

But that extra money puts Spokane fuel sellers at a disadvantage not faced by Seattle fuel sellers, said Tom Hemmingway of The Broadway Group, which operates the Broadway Flying J truck stop.

In border communities like Spokane, cheaper fuel sits just over the state line.

Though truck drivers must still pay fuel use taxes in each jurisdiction through which they travel, such taxes only have to be paid immediately at the pump, Hemmingway said. The others are paid at a later date.

Hemmingway uses a driver heading through Post Falls on the way to Seattle as an example.

“Why wouldn’t I fuel up in Idaho?” he asked. “The fuel’s cheaper and the cash flow is better.”

But for Eng, the gas tax is primarily about safety.

Both the Alaskan Way viaduct and 520 bridge are unsafe now, she said.

“God forbid we lose a life or many lives,” Eng said.

Nonewgastax.com has until July 8 to turn in 225,000 signatures on its I-912 petition to get the issue on the November general election ballot.

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