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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Look beyond gas tax for funding of state’s roads

Controversial as Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed tax on industrial polluters may be, the plan at least moves discussion of Washington’s transportation needs beyond reliance on the gas tax.

Discussion that is, not passage.

But Washington Treasurer James McIntire, keeper of the state’s gasoline credit card, warned legislators and the governor earlier this month that revenues from that highway funding mainstay are sputtering. The increases projected when the tax was raised by five cents in 2003 and 9.5 cents in 2005 – over four years – have not materialized as vehicles have become more fuel efficient and more people use mass transit.

As a result, the state is narrowing the ratio between gas tax revenues and transportation bond payments towards a point where Washington’s solid credit ratings become suspect. In 1999, the tax generated $6 for every $1 in bond debt, with the rest available for spending on roads and ferries. The ratio is down to nearly $2 for every $1 in revenue, on its way to $1.50.

The competing transportation plans in the House and Senate last spring, which called for selling more bonds, would have worsened the problem.

Better back up, says McIntire, whose Dec. 11 letter preceded the release last week of Inslee’s transportation and tax plans. A spokesman said McIntire was not consulted on either the capital gains tax or cap-and-trade (Inslee doesn’t call it that) proposals included in his 2015-2017 budget.

McIntire’s solution resembles, in part, the direction Spokane adopted in November, when voters endorsed a proposal to refinance city transportation bonds and commit half of the funds from the new issue to repaying the old, and using the remaining half to finance ongoing maintenance.

He would dedicate half of gas tax revenues to bond financing for the most urgent projects, the rest to street and ferry system upkeep, paying as you go.

How Inslee’s fee for polluters might augment construction depends on whether revenues are dedicated to transportation under the 18th Amendment to Washington’s Constitution, and just how much money comes in: The governor’s budget estimates $4.8 billion over 12 years; the equivalent of a 12 cents-per-gallon gas tax increase, but imposed on about 130 industrial plants, not motorists.

McIntire’s solution – tolling the Interstate 90 bridge into Seattle – would very much affect drivers.

The Senate’s Republican leadership says Inslee’s carbon plan will be dead on arrival in that chamber. Business carries too much of the tax burden in Washington, and we agree that adding to the load makes little sense.

Reforms like eliminating the sales tax on transportation projects would put more money to work on roads, but the challenges are huge. Congestion is choking the state’s economy, and a higher gas tax – which the Senate’s Majority Coalition supported last spring – has not provided a solution, just a stopgap.

In a not so distant past, Washington charged for vehicle tabs based on value. Crazy idea?

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