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Editorial: Maintenance plan has traction despite ‘fees’

The transportation plan submitted to the Legislature last week by Gov. Chris Gregoire has a lot of moving, expensive parts and a questionable ignition system.

She has asked legislators to approve $3.7 billion in mostly operating and maintenance funds for the pavement and steel already in place. The plan is a chopped version of a $21 billion blueprint developed by her Connecting Washington Task Force, which called for significant new investment in addition to the O&M component.

The $3.7 billion, 10-year proposal’s maintenance program would address infrastructure crumbling as governments at every level have throttled back on repairs because of declining revenues.

Gas tax increases of 2003 and 2005 have been fully committed to more than 400 transportation projects. Maintenance dollars were not built into those programs.

Although the bulk of the governor’s new money is ticketed for roads and such, some would be set aside for the Washington State Patrol and some for stormwater control, a particularly appealing feature given a potential bill of $300 million facing Spokane to corral its overflow.

A $1.50-per-barrel fee to be charged on every barrel of oil refined in Washington would be the primary source of additional funding for the governor’s plan. The yield; a projected $2.75 billion. Smaller sums would be raised by imposing fees ranging from $5 on studded tires to $15 on passenger vehicle weight to $100 on all-electric vehicles, which contribute nada to gasoline taxes.

Note the use of the word “fee” instead of “tax.”

By labeling the revenue piece of her plan as fees, the governor is trying to avoid the high bar set for new levies established by Initiative 1053, which in 2010 reimposed a requirement that supermajorities – two-thirds of House and Senate members – vote for new taxes. Fees require only majority support, a threshold Democrats might be able to attain if leaders can keep party caucus members in line. That’s no certainty in an election year.

But the per-barrel fee is really a gasoline tax in disguise. Washington’s five refineries will certainly pass the levy on to consumers. In 2009, Washington residents consumed slightly less than one-half of the gasoline produced by those refineries. It would be nice to think Spokane-area drivers might be less directly affected because we get about half of our fuel from Montana refineries, but the penny-or-two- per-gallon “fee” on Washington- refined product will no doubt show up on every gallon pumped, regardless of origin.

That Washington roads need better upkeep is undeniable. Several of the “fees” make sense; the one on electric vehicles definitely and, like it or not, the impost on pavement- wrecking studded tires. Taxing – feeing, that is – barrels of oil at least spreads some in-state O&M costs to Oregon and California, the other major destinations for Washington-refined oil.

But if two-thirds of lawmakers cannot support what is a relatively modest $370 million-per-year transportation maintenance program, discussion of the bigger investment issues ahead is probably going nowhere.


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