Gas Tax, Bike Fee Fuel House Dems’ Transportation Plan

By Andrew Garber & Mike Lindblom, February 20, 2013, Seattle Times

House Democrats rolled out a nearly $10 billion transportation package Wednesday that would boost taxes on gasoline, increase car tabs and even charge a bicycle fee to raise money.

The proposal would increase the state gas tax by 10 cents over five years, eventually reaching a total of 47.5 cents per gallon. Currently, Washington state has the nation’s ninth-highest gas tax.

In addition, it would create a car tab equal to 0.7 percent of a vehicle’s value. A state tax on hazardous chemicals would increase by 0.3 percent, to 1 percent.

There’s even a $25 sales fee on bicycles worth $500 or more that raises a total $1 million over 10 years, included for largely symbolic reasons.

Overall, the package would plow billions of dollars into highway projects such as improvements to Highways 167 and 509, as well as Interstate 405. It also would provide money to help build a new Columbia River crossing, widen Interstate 90 at Snoqualmie Pass and relieve Interstate 5 congestion around Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

But the initial proposal leaves out any money for the underfunded Highway 520 floating bridge — a likely signal that Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island and House Transportation Committee chairwoman, still expects to toll I-90 to close most of the 520 bridge’s $1.4 billion shortfall.

In addition, the plan offers no relief for the tolling crisis in the future Highway 99 tunnel, alongside the Seattle waterfront. A 2009 law requiring $400 million in tunnel tolls has been gutted by reality, as state planners now figure they can raise at most $165 million through the tolls, and even at that, they would create a risk of severe traffic diversion into downtown streets.

The Democrats’ proposal does set aside around $1 billion for maintenance of state highways and local roads.

There’s also money for the state ferry system, public transportation and the State Patrol.

A coalition of business, labor and environmental groups is pushing for lawmakers to advance some kind of transportation package this session. Spokesmen for several members of the coalition called the House package a good start, but expect it to change.

Mike Ennis, government-affairs director for the Association of Washington Business (AWB), said his group has concerns about proposed increases to car tabs and the hazardous-substance tax.

He noted that Tim Eyman’s Initiative 695 pressured lawmakers to slash the statewide car-tab to $30 more than a decade ago. “Eyman is likely going to be lurking with any increase” approved by lawmakers, Ennis said.

The AWB also wants to see more money set aside for highway maintenance, he said. “That’s the problem that state officials say we have now: There’s not enough money to meet those preservation obligations,” Ennis said.

Jeff Johnson, president of the Washington State Labor Council, said he likes the mix of projects funded including highways, transit and ferries, but would like to see more money overall.

“The coalition would like to work with (the House transportation chair) and others to see if we can’t beef that package up more,” he said.

Under current state law, it would take a two-thirds vote in the state House and Senate to approve most of the funding proposals in the House package, including the gas tax and car tabs.

The state Supreme Court is currently considering a case that argues the two-thirds requirement is unconstitutional. Some Democrats want to push for the Legislature to approve a transportation tax package if the court throws out the supermajority requirements.

If the court upholds the law, Democrats say it will most likely have to go to voters.

Senate Transportation Committee co-chairman Curtis King, R-Yakima, said any package should go to the ballot. “It’s my opinion it needs to go to a vote of the people,” he said.

Democrats control the state House and the governor’s office. Republicans control the Senate.

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