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Wed., Oct. 3, 2012

Editorial: Transportation needs demand more revenue than fee hikes

Drivers and vehicle owners lined up outside Washington Department of Licensing offices last week to beat increases in licensing fees that took effect Monday. The higher fees will generate a projected $60.4 million by the end of this budget biennium June 30, and $186.5 million during the 2013-2015 biennium.

In short, chump change for a state that needs billions to start or complete a project list that includes the North Spokane Corridor, the Highway 520 bridge and Highway 99 tunnel in Seattle, and the Interstate 5 Columbia River bridge between Vancouver and Portland.

A task force created by Gov. Chris Gregoire in January said maintenance and expansion of Washington transportation assets, including those at the city and county levels, could require $50 billion over the next decade, but pared the list of potential investments to $21 billion.

Mobility is a big issue for a state as dependent on international trade as Washington, and with the financial assistance available from the other Washington declining, the state is going to have to go it alone, or pretty much not go at all.

Gas taxes, which finance 76 percent of all transportation investment, have fallen 10 percent since 2001, and their purchasing power has fallen by about one-half, although the slowdown in all construction has bent the cost curve down since 2009.

Worse, revisions made last year project $5 billion less in gas revenues between 2007 and 2023. Vehicle mileage has surged as a combination of government mandates, consumer demand and technological innovation transforms forever the late, not-so-great hefty American-made hunk of steaming junk.

Highways can be made more efficient, too, and material and labor costs, as noted above, have worked to the state’s advantage. A March study by the Department of Transportation reported that 91 percent of projects funded by 2003 and 2005 gas tax increases were on or under budget.

But completing projects like the North Spokane Corridor is going to take more money, and funds from a $5 fee increase for a driver’s instruction permit, or doubling the cost of identification cards, will not do the job.

The task force produced a menu of meatier tolls, taxes and fees, many that would be subject to a two-thirds vote by legislators. The possibilities included a 15 percent or 20 percent gas tax increase that would yield up to $4.7 billion over 10 years, fees based on vehicle weight that could yield $2.1 billion, and a 1 percent motor vehicle excise tax that would yield $4 billion.

In 1999, remember, Tim Eyman launched his career as a promoter of ballot initiatives by convincing voters the excise was unfair.

It will take a lot of unconvincing if voters are going to accept new fee and tax burdens. The state and localities like the city of Spokane have strengthened the case by responsibly managing the transportation revenues they have.

The next Legislature has a long, hard drive ahead.

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