When legislators debated a gas-tax increase at this time last year, the statewide average price per gallon was $3.32, according to AAA. On Wednesday, it was $2.15 statewide and $1.76 in Spokane.
Not raising the gas tax this year is like failing to give the ball to Marshawn Lynch on the half-yard line.
But the state better hurry and huddle up, because Congress may be coalescing around a federal gas-tax increase of 12 cents per gallon to shore up the deficit in the U.S. Highway Trust Fund. Currently, the fund raises $34 billion a year, while the government spends $50 billion on surface transportation. The federal gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1993.
Strategically, it would be wise for the state to strike first, but Gov. Jay Inslee has complicated matters by announcing a wholly new approach to infrastructure funding: a cap-and-trade carbon scheme that would produce uncertain results. Inslee wants to “tax polluters instead of commuters,” who, by the way, are also polluters. His plan would subject the state’s largest carbon emitters to this carbon levy without raising the gas tax.
Inslee gets points for creativity, but dropping an idea of this magnitude into the middle of the debate is unhelpful. The Legislature has already put two years of work into this issue. However, he can still become “the Transportation Governor” by bringing the House and Senate together to forge a package that can be adopted soon.
To understand what’s at stake, the Washington Roundtable, a group of statewide business leaders, asked the Boston Consulting Group to study the impact of action and inaction. A $7 billion investment over 30 years would generate an estimated $42 billion economic boost, creating nearly 200,000 jobs and more efficient movement of goods and motorists. Conversely, inaction would cost the average driver $940 annually, and shipping volume at the Seattle and Tacoma ports would take a hit. Plus, by 2026, 60 percent of highway pavement would be rated “poor” or worse, and 40 percent of bridges would be dangerously deficient.
The House passed a transportation plan last year that included a gas tax boost. The Senate did not, but the Majority Coalition is gaining confidence that it can pull together enough votes to pass a package that includes an increase of 10 to 12 cents per gallon. Both sides understand that revenue from a gas tax is a diminishing return because of increased fuel efficiency, so other sources must be tapped, such as tolling and licensing and fees on all vehicles, including hybrid and electric cars. Banning or affixing a fee for studded tires should also be in the mix.
The framework for a deal exists. The circumstances couldn’t be better.
A Transportation Governor would run, not pass.
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