Washington state has a problem. Transportation construction costs keep going up, and revenues from the gas tax – the primary source for funding such construction – remain largely flat.
It’s a problem that’s bound to get worse. With electric vehicles and fuel efficiency becoming more common, the flat-rate gas tax will do less and less to provide for needed construction.
The state transportation commission thinks it has a solution, or at least is ready to try an experiment.
According to a report in the Seattle Times, the state is launching a pilot project where 2,000 volunteers will pay a “mock tax on the number of miles they drive on Washington state roads, rather than on the amount of gas they use.”
The idea is simple enough. Vehicles that use far less fuel, or none at all, still put stress on the roads and should contribute to the upkeep. California, Oregon, Colorado, Utah and Hawaii have done, or are planning to do, similar mileage pilots.
It also has its disadvantages. Gas tax is easy to collect and impossible to avoid for most of us. For each gallon of gas, the state gets about 49 cents – the second-highest gas tax in the nation – and the federal government takes 18.4 cents per gallon. Last year, the state collected about $1.6 billion from the gas tax, a revenue it’s particularly reliant on for roadwork, thanks to the lack of an income tax.
On the other hand, tracking mileage for taxation purposes could be difficult. For the pilot program, drivers have different options to account for their miles. They can send in photos of their odometer, have it read at a state licensing office, use a smartphone app to track miles or attach a mileage meter to their car.
To soothe privacy concerns, the state is offering a meter that doesn’t track movement but the simple ticking by of miles. None of these options are as simple as collecting at the pump.
Gas tax has never been without controversy, but replacing it with a mileage fee will likely face stiff opposition. The first state to institute a gas tax in the nation was Oregon, in 1919. Every other state quickly followed its lead, effectively stripping municipal leaders of their influence over transportation planning and driving it instead to state lawmakers.
Before the shift, cities collected road construction money from the rising property tax revenues the routes created. But gas taxes, administered by states, gave power to state legislators, who were more beholden to rural voters by simple virtue of vote count. Instead of city-centric road planning that relied on density and slower speeds, state lawmakers built highways between cities and paved rural roads.
Since then, the gas tax has become something of a self-sustaining feedback loop. More cars generate more gas tax revenue while also doing more damage to the road, requiring more upkeep and more roads to support the more cars.
As with many taxes, the gas tax isn’t a politician’s best friend. Lawmakers have refused to raise the federal gas tax for 24 years. But replacing it, at least in Washington, appears to be more of a political hot potato. The conservative Washington Policy Center is opposed to the new pilot program. And a survey done by the state leading up to the pilot found that 58 percent of respondents opposed a road usage charge to replace the gas tax.
Whether funded by gas tax, mileage tax or some other yet undreamt revenue source, the roads will always need maintenance. As most of us can attest, we keep driving, but the roads just don’t keep up.
Got a transportation question you want answered? Write email@example.com.
Sewer work continues
Work on the city of Spokane’s effort to stop sewage from going into the river continues to impact traffic around town.
On the west end of downtown, Adams Street between First and Sprague is reduced to one lane. First is reduced to one lane eastbound. Sprague Avenue is closed to all westbound traffic from Jefferson to Cedar. Westbound Riverside is open to traffic and serves as the detour route for the Sprague closure. Eastbound Riverside remains closed from Cedar to Jefferson Street.
In East Central, Riverside Avenue between Magnolia and Napa is closed for work on a combined sewer overflow tank.
Near Liberty Park, traffic impacts on Fifth from Arthur to Perry, and Denver and Celesta, continue due to the city’s construction of a 2-million-gallon combined sewer overflow tank.
Transportation council seeks input
The Spokane Regional Transportation Council is proposing to invest nearly $800 million in the local transportation system and wants input from the public.
Every year, the council, which doles out federal transportation money, must update its transportation improvement program with projects that local jurisdictions have planned over the coming four years that receive federal funding.
This year’s update, which covers 2018 through 2021, has $789 million covering 106 projects, 12 of which are new. The largest projects include STA’s Central City Line, the county’s Bigelow Gulch-Forker Connector project and the city’s Sunset Boulevard project.
An open house to review the plan, and the major projects, is scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 19, from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Paulsen Center, 421 W. Riverside Ave.
STA expands service
Beginning Sept. 17, the Spokane Transit Authority will expand service throughout its system, including nonstop weekday service between Liberty Lake and downtown Spokane, and extended night and weekend service on the lines that run on Nevada and Lidgerwood. Other lines will see more frequent service, including on North Monroe, and schedules will be adjusted on many other lines.
For more information, visit SpokaneTransit.com.
School zones in effect
School is in session, and 20 mph zones are back in effect.
The seasonal 20 mph signs near eight parks and pools have been removed, and the school speed limit signs were reinstalled.
Basic maintenance around town
Today crews will start chip-seal work on four Spokane streets:
Gordon Avenue from Crestline to Helena.
Pittsburg from Empire to Glass.
Providence Avenue from Napa to Helena.
Napa Street from Gordon to Glass.
Valley utility work
In Spokane Valley, traffic on South Pines from East 32nd to East 40th avenues will be impacted due to utility pipe replacement by Avista. The work will take place between 7 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. from today through Friday, Sept. 15. Flaggers and cones will be on-site.
Euclid Avenue between Tschirley and Barker roads remains completely closed through September for a road and sewer project. Detour signs are on-site. Local access is available depending on excavation work.
East Saltese Road between East 16th and East 24th avenues also remains completely closed between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. for a street preservation project.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.