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Thu., Feb. 21, 2013, midnight

Editorial: Roads bill good start, but schools are priority

The Washington Legislature, at last, has a real gas can to kick down the road: a proposed transportation plan that will cost almost $10 billion, with gas tax increases that will pay for it.

That’s right; higher gas taxes. And tab fees. And tolls. Even buyers of bicycles costing more than $500 will pay up, which should salve drivers who have grumbled about two-wheeled free riders for years.

The plan unveiled Wednesday by House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, is about as ambitious as it must be to clear Washington’s road, bridge and port bottlenecks.

This state lives on trade. If goods cannot get to or from the docks, or airports, or across the Columbia River, or down from or up to Canada, Washington becomes an economic island.

The roads and bridges that carry freight today are worn out, or overwhelmed by a volume of traffic they were never intended to carry. Some projects that will alleviate the congestion are already under way; the North Spokane Corridor here, and the Highway 520 bridge, and tunnel to replace the Alaska Way Viaduct in Seattle, for example.

The Columbia River Crossing, meanwhile, is bogged down by arguments over the cost split between Washington and Oregon, and the extension of Portland’s light rail system into Vancouver.

Clibborn’s bill would pay for these projects and others by increasing the state gas tax by two cents per year for five years, taking the rate to 47.5 cents per gallon, the fourth highest in the United States. Tab fees based on vehicle value would be reinstituted. Bikers would pay $25 if their bikes cost more than $500.

The plan already has the support of business and labor, at least as a starting point for discussing how best to get at transportation solutions. The Association of Washington Business tempers its endorsement with calls for more timely regulatory and environmental reviews.

A Mayor’s Transportation Forum last week asked Gov. Jay Inslee and legislative leaders to support an eight-cent increase in gas taxes. Spokane Mayor David Condon did not sign the letter.

House Republicans say they want transportation and economic reforms before the discussion turns to gas taxes. One puzzling complaint: Projects paid for over 30 years generate employment for less than 10 years. But it’s the projects, not the jobs, that are supposed to outlast the life of the bonds issued to pay for them.

A GOP counterproposal would be welcome, especially one less reliant on gas taxes that have become steadily less reliable revenue generators. Just a “no” will not get much-needed work under way.

Here’s one thought: Tax studded tires. We know they damage highways. Look at the grooves already gouged into rebuilt sections of Interstate 90 east of downtown Spokane. Make those responsible pay for the repairs.

The biggest defect in Clibborn’s plan might be the timing. Education must come first. Although not exclusive – one is capital spending, the other operations spending – K-12 and higher education funding badly needs attention.

Start there.

The Spokesman-Review Editorial Board

Members of The Spokesman-Review editorial board help to determine The Spokesman-Review's position on issues of interest to the Inland Northwest. Board members are:

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