October 13, 2013 in Opinion

Free up existing gas tax revenue for DOT projects

Sen. Mark Schoesler
 

No matter what you pay at the pump for a gallon of gas in our state, 37.5 cents goes to Olympia in the form of tax. That’s been the case since 2008, when a 9.5-cent gas-tax increase adopted three years earlier took full effect.

Subtract nearly 40 percent of the resulting revenue to pay for road projects specifically tied to the 2005 gas-tax increase and another from 2003. Give almost 30 percent to cities and counties to help with their road projects. Use another 10 percent to pay off bonds that funded past projects. What’s left is equal to 8 cents per gallon, to spread between day-to-day operations at the state transportation department and efforts to maintain, preserve and improve roads, bridges and the state-run ferry system. That’s not much.

How, then, does the state tackle worthwhile transportation projects that still lack funding, including the completion of the North Spokane Corridor, safety improvements at other intersections on U.S. Highway 395 and the addition of passing lanes on two-lane highways such as state routes 17, 26 and 195? The governor and the Democrats who control the state House of Representatives want more gas tax. If they had prevailed in June, we’d have started paying another 6 cents per gallon Aug. 1, with another 4.5-cent jump coming next July.

There’s another route: Free up some of the money that’s being collected at the pump already and shift it toward projects needing attention.

A good example involves the sales tax paid by the state on the materials used in road projects. That money, being sales tax, goes into the state’s general fund to be used for all sorts of non-transportation purposes. Why not change state law to re-route those particular dollars back into the transportation fund? This reform alone would make some $400 million available without asking Washingtonians to pay more at the pump.

Here’s another: The transportation fund is tapped by around $40 million annually to deal with polluted stormwater that runs off roads. Why not instead use money from the separate account set up for addressing polluted water, an account fueled by a hazardous-substance tax approved by voters nearly 25 years ago? This reform could let the state re-route as much as $480 million in fuel-tax revenue across 12 years.

Gov. Jay Inslee talks about how the Interstate 5 bridge across the Skagit River, which partially collapsed May 23, reopened within a month. He doesn’t play up the fact that repairs wouldn’t have been completed so quickly had the state followed its usual environmental-permitting process. Knowing how time is money, why not take the same streamlining approach to permits for other projects, save as much as 20 percent, then re-route those dollars to other projects?

There’s been chatter around the Capitol for a couple of years about how to take on more transportation projects. However, the Legislature’s priority this year was clearly on doing more for public education. 

Our Senate majority coalition resolved that dilemma by showing how to significantly boost funding not only for basic education but also higher education without a general tax increase. By then, though, it was too late for meaningful negotiations between the Senate and House beyond the new two-year transportation budget we’d already approved, a bare-bones plan that simply allocates existing revenue toward projects already on the list.

The folks we’ve talked with since the Legislature adjourned aren’t thrilled by the prospect of paying more in gas tax or other fees. They’re even less enthused to think new gas-tax dollars would simply disappear into the same old inefficient system that’s already sticking taxpayers statewide for expensive DOT blunders west of the Cascades.

To let people make their voices heard we’ve hosted a series of transportation-feedback forums statewide. The Spokane-area meeting was Oct. 2 in a packed Central Valley High School theater.

The feedback has been clear. People want the state to invest in more projects, but they also recognize that there’s value in fixing the system that builds and maintains our infrastructure, then funding it. If it truly costs more to build a mile of road in Washington than in most other states, address that. If reforms will free up money for additional projects, pursue them first and reduce the demand for new revenue.

Inslee talks of calling the Legislature back in November to bring a transportation package to a vote. He’s focused on the timing; our Senate majority is more interested in what the people want, and we’re listening.

 

Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, is Senate Republican leader and represents the 9th Legislative District. Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, is vice chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee and represents the 6th Legislative District.


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