Early in the legislative session that begins next month, the Washington Transportation Commission will send state lawmakers a 20-year plan that declares between $175 billion and $200 billion in unfunded state and local transportation needs over the next two decades.
That stress-inducing message comes at a time when the traditional sources of transportation funding are waning and the mood of voters is scaring elected officials away from talk of new or increased revenues.
Unless the dilemma is resolved, the state’s economy, which is heavily reliant on freight mobility, will be at serious risk.
For reasons ranging from more efficient motor vehicles to greater use of alternative transportation modes to a tight economy, gasoline consumption nationwide is dropping and unlikely ever to return to levels reached in 2006. That’s great for the environment, great for the economy and great for national security, but it’s chilling for a deteriorating highway network that depends on gasoline taxes.
In Washington, according to Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond, 75 percent of the state’s transportation funding comes from the gasoline tax, the base rate of which has been 23 cents a gallon for the past two decades. In 2003 and 2005, voters did approve two measures totaling an added 14.5 cents a gallon, but for the next 25 to 30 years those proceeds will be paying off bonds that already have been spent on 400 projects around the state. Meanwhile, Hammond says, every penny of the state’s federal gasoline tax formula is needed for maintenance of existing infrastructure.
Maintaining what we have is the top priority listed in the Transportation Commission’s plan, which expresses a preference for projects that can assure measurable benefits and for integrating all facets of the transportation system into a connected whole. Unfortunately, as Transportation Commission member Carol Moser from the Tri-Cities noted recently, the present tax system “can’t keep up with maintenance, replacement or new needs.”
The 2011 legislative session may be the most demanding in living memory. The recession has slashed state revenues and required excruciating cuts. The 2010 election, meanwhile, convinced many politicians that the mere mention of taxes, fees or other revenue increases is political suicide.
But without sufficient capacity for the transportation of goods and people, the state economy will not provide the jobs and revenues needed to sustain economic recovery. A hasty rush to increase taxes for transportation or any other purpose would be foolhardy, but Washington lawmakers need to muster the courage to explore what it will take to keep the state moving.
At some point during the coming biennium, that’s likely to mean an increase in the gasoline tax, at least for the short term. The bigger challenge will be to replace it with a long-term funding structure better suited to a world of electric and other high-mileage vehicles.
They must not allow political timidity to prevent them from addressing this urgent challenge.