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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Editorial: Difficulties for fuel taxes may mean bumpy ride

Two years ago, when state transportation officials recalculated how much they could expect to collect in motor vehicle fuel taxes over the next 16 years, the figure was $1.6 billion less than a similar forecast had predicted only two years earlier.

Recessionary factors played a part in the revenue drop-off between 2007 and 2009, but there were additional contributors, such as more fuel-efficient vehicles, not to mention the environmental and geopolitical pressures that encourage Americans to limit driving. Unlike the recession, those influences will not rebound with the next economic cycle.

But if having fewer cars and trucks driving fewer miles more efficiently is socially desirable, it poses difficulties for transportation planners, especially in a furiously anti-tax climate.

Efficient vehicles, even if battery-operated, still need streets and highways, the construction of which traditionally has been paid for by taxes on fuel and vehicles – user fees. But while fuel consumption declined in Washington in 2009 for the first time, the state Transportation Commission estimates as much as $200 million in state and local transportation needs to be funded by 2030.

Voter-approved fuel tax hikes of recent years are already fully committed to pay off bonds that are funding hundreds of millions of dollars in transportation work across the state. Every penny is spoken for and will be for years.

So when state lawmakers say another gasoline tax hike proposal is likely to appear on a forthcoming state ballot, maybe as soon as 2012, they are talking about only a partial solution to their problems.

As taxes go, fuel taxes boast of some qualities that other assessments lack. They’re paid for by the people who use what they fund. They’re dedicated to highway programs, so voters know what they’re going to get. And at a time when pump prices are subject to volatile swings, a few cents on a gallon is relatively unnoticeable on the pocket book.

At the same time, adequate highways serve motorists’ comfort and convenience and contribute to the cost-effective movement of goods, so essential for a healthy economy.

And to the delight of those who advocate privatization of government services, highway construction is the domain of contractors who create tens of thousands of private-sector jobs. Even so, the public appetite for taxes is distressed enough that whenever a gas tax boost is proposed, it will be a difficult sell.

Meanwhile, public policy makers can waste no time devising a new transportation-funding model that sufficiently covers infrastructure costs in the era of Volts and Leafs.