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Editorial: Budget plans fall short of pressing road needs

Bare bones. Band-Aid. Nothing new.

Those are terms lawmakers are using to describe the transportation budgets that emerged from the House and Senate last week. The House plan for the 2013-15 biennium totals $8.4 billion; the Senate plan comes in at $8.7 billion. Both fall short of the previous biennium’s $9.8 billion. Neither plan calls for new revenue, yet.

The House Transportation Committee may come out with a revenue package this week, but even that’s been trimmed from a preliminary proposal announced in February. A hike in the vehicle excise tax has gone by the wayside, along with a levy on expensive bicycles, and an increase in the hazardous substance tax. An increase in the gasoline tax is still in play. The February plan called for 2 cents per year over five years, though that may get front-loaded to get more bang for the buck. Other potential sources are fees based on vehicle weight, and options for local governments to raise transportation taxes and fees.

Whether that happens or not, these plans fail to face up to the state’s long-term transportation challenges, which were laid out in detail by the Washington State Transportation Commission report in 2010. The report notes that revenues from the additional 14.5 cents per gallon in gasoline taxes adopted in 2003 and 2005 are tied to ongoing projects for the next 25 to 30 years and, that “by conservative estimates,” another $175 billion to $200 billion will be needed over the next 20 years.

The just-getting-by plans from both chambers offer zilch toward that future need. Spending is for current projects only. Both plans would spend about $68 million – down from $72 million in the previous biennium – on the north Spokane freeway, despite the need for another $1.3 billion to complete the stretch from Francis Avenue to Interstate 90.

Compounding the challenges to get big projects to the finish line is the fact that the federal government is also unwilling to raise revenues. The federal gas tax hasn’t been increased since 1993. As a result, federal funding is becoming harder to secure. When the Interstate Highway System was first built, states had to come up with only a 10 percent match for projects. Now, 20 percent is typical.

In response to these challenges, the Transportation Commission devised some recommendations, including: index the fuel tax to inflation; offset the increased fuel efficiency of vehicles with an annual assessment; tether licensing and permit fees to current and future purchasing power; adjust vehicle weight fees; adopt fees for electric or extra-high-mileage vehicles that largely escape fuel taxes; adjust rules on local governments so they can raise more money via street maintenance utilities, transportation benefit districts and the fuel tax; and increase tolling.

If legislators are going to reject these recommendations, they should devise some solutions of their own. The future economic vitality of the state is directly related to an integrated, comprehensive transportation network. These plans won’t get us there.


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