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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Pacific NW

Washington state searches for tax solution to fix crumbling roads

Work continued in December on the new state Route 520 floating bridge across Lake Washington that links Medina, Wash., to Seattle. (Associated Press)
Work continued in December on the new state Route 520 floating bridge across Lake Washington that links Medina, Wash., to Seattle. (Associated Press)
From Chad Sokol And Wire Reports

OLYMPIA – On a typical morning commute from Spokane Valley to downtown Spokane on Interstate 90, drivers pass under eight bridges deemed “structurally deficient” by state engineers.

It could be a while before they’re fixed.

As roads and bridges crumble across the country, lawmakers scramble to pay for repairs. The nation’s infrastructure faces huge challenges because of falling gas tax revenue, and the Inland Northwest has not gone unscathed.

Washington used to resurface roads and highways in the state every 10 to 15 years, but there’s not enough money to keep up that schedule, said Al Gilson, a state Department of Transportation spokesman.

“Now we’re stretching those limits farther and farther,” Gilson said. Roads “get worse and worse, and we patch and patch, and they get bumpy.”

Lawmakers and governors confront similar realities in most states. A decline in federal funding has led to rougher roads that require more frequent, short-term repairs and jammed commuter routes with more vehicles than they were designed to carry.

Gilson compared the problem to a car in need of an oil change: “If you let it run on the same oil, sooner or later you’re going to break something more expensive.”

About 20 percent of the nation’s 900,000 miles of interstates and major roads are in need of resurfacing or reconstruction, according to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association. A quarter of the nation’s 600,000 bridges are considered structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. That doesn’t always mean they’re on the verge of collapse, Gilson said. It could mean they have narrow lanes or other structural components that don’t meet today’s standards.

Washington is home to about 140 structurally deficient bridges; 12 are in Spokane County. One is the East Trent Avenue bridge over the Spokane River, which needs to be torn down and replaced, but that project won’t begin for at least several years, Gilson said.

And it’s not enough to fix existing infrastructure, he said. The state also needs to finish projects like the North Spokane Corridor to relieve stress on surface streets, which don’t last long under heavy truckloads.

Hank Swift, a geotechnical engineer for HKS Engineers in Rathdrum, said some roadside slopes in the region have become unstable in recent years. That could result in rockslides and further damage to the roads, he said.

Roads in the Northwest face some specific challenges, like studded tires that tear up pavement, Swift said. Freeze-thaw cycles create potholes when water seeps into deeper layers of asphalt and expands. The city of Spokane fills nearly 3,000 potholes in an average year.

“We haven’t been spending much on maintenance at all for a few years,” Swift said. “We’ve been in the hole for a while now, and it’s getting harder to crawl out.”

Gas taxes barely covering costs

For nearly a century, state and federal gas taxes have been the financial foundation of the nation’s roads. As vehicles become more fuel-efficient and people cut back on driving, however, gas tax revenue has plateaued in most states. The federal gas tax has lost more than one-third of its value to inflation since it was last raised to 18.4 cents a gallon in 1993.

“The method that we use to fund transportation – the primary method, the motor fuels tax – is a model that doesn’t work anymore,” said David Ellis, the top infrastructure investment analyst at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

Total state and federal road funding exceeded the general rate of inflation over the past decade, but states are picking up a bigger share as the amount coming from the federal government declines. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials estimates that annual road and bridge spending by all levels of government is falling $32 billion short of what is needed.

Washington, Idaho consider new hikes

At 37.5 cents a gallon, Washington’s gas tax is among the highest in the nation. It went up in 2003 and again in 2005, nearly tripling the state’s road spending over the following decade.

Combined state and federal spending grew from $2.3 billion in 2003 to $6.5 billion in 2013 with little increase in federal contributions. That’s the largest increase of any state during that period, according to figures compiled by the Associated Press.

But Washington, like most states, still feels the need for more revenue. State senators this month introduced a far-reaching transportation package that would raise gas taxes by 11.7 cents a gallon over three years. It could generate more than $15 billion for a wide array of projects over 16 years. In addition to the gas tax hike, the legislation would impose new weight fees and shift sales taxes paid on road projects from the general fund to the transportation fund. It sets aside about $8.2 billion to build or rebuild highways and $1.3 billion for maintenance. The North Spokane Corridor would get $862 million.

The package has bipartisan sponsors and tepid support from Gov. Jay Inslee. One possible roadblock is a provision that could deter Inslee’s push for tighter carbon emissions standards, which legislative Republicans say would raise fuel costs even higher.

Some Democrats oppose some elements of the package, such as shifting sales tax out of the general fund when the state is trying to meet court orders for education and mental health care. They also don’t like proposals to change labor rules that would exempt some people from prevailing-wage laws.

In Idaho, some House Republicans called last week for an 8-cent increase to the state’s 25-cent tax, as well as a 50 percent increase in car registration fees. That proposal stands less of a chance, but supporters say it’s necessary to look for new revenue.

Some states trying new things

Five states passed gas tax increases during the past two years, but about half of all states have not raised their gas taxes in at least a decade. Many are now considering alternative ways of paying for roads.

Washington has imposed fees on owners of electric vehicles, and Inslee’s carbon-emissions proposal would help finance transportation projects by taxing the state’s largest polluters. He describes it as “transportation pollution paying for transportation solutions.”

A tax on the number of miles traveled is one of the most commonly discussed alternatives to fuel taxes but has not been widely implemented. Oregon plans to test the concept in July with 5,000 volunteers, who will be charged 1.5 cents for each mile they drive while getting a refund on their gas taxes.

Idaho last year shifted part of its cigarette tax revenue to highways. Arkansas in 2012 began funding road projects by taxing all retail sales. Virginia in 2013 repealed its per-gallon gas tax and replaced it with a 3.5 percent tax on wholesale gas prices.

In December, Virginia used private investors to open a 29-mile stretch of express toll lanes on Interstate 95. Delaware raised toll prices last year, and some other states have considered following suit.

What the feds are (and aren’t) doing

The state proposals stand in stark contrast to the inaction in Congress, where temporary infusions of money are set to expire in May and lawmakers have been at odds over a long-term highway plan. Some members proposed a federal gas tax increase last summer, but House and Senate Republican leaders have said there aren’t enough votes.

Earlier this month, President Barack Obama proposed a six-year, $478 billion “repatriation” program to pay for highway, transit and infrastructure upgrades, with funding roughly split between the current fuel taxes and a tax on the foreign profits of U.S. corporations.

How much of that plan survives Congress, where majority Republicans seek to limit government spending and reduce taxes, will not be determined for months. And even if Congress passes major reforms, there could be a fight to keep the money focused on transportation.

“There’s a lot of people eyeing those repatriation dollars,” said U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash. “There will be a lot of competition.”

The 2009 stimulus act provided a brief spike in transportation funding. But the annual amount available to states from the Federal Highway Trust Fund has hovered around $40 billion since 2007 while needs have continued to mount.

Swift, the engineer, said the nation’s roads took a hit during the Great Recession. “But frankly it goes a little beyond the last downturn. We just haven’t made it a priority, and now it’s coming back to bite us.”

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