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Published: Tuesday, April 2, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Gas tax still key in roads plan

A Mercer Island lawmaker wants to gain support by phasing in a 10-cent tax increase to raise $10 billion for transportation projects.

OLYMPIA -- A plan to raise nearly $10 billion for transportation is shrinking as key pieces are discarded in the face of political opposition, its chief architect said Monday.
Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, said she's trimmed the revenue package by roughly a third, tossing out a detested motor vehicle excise tax, fee on sales of expensive bikes and hike in the hazardous substance tax.
A 10-cent gas tax increase continues to be the centerpiece of her plan though she changed when the money will be collected in hopes of securing votes in the House and Senate.
Originally, she sought annual two-cent increases for five years. Now, she said she is looking to impose the full increase over four years beginning with a hike of a nickel in the first year and the rest phased in after that.
"If you get most of it up front, you get it working faster," said Clibborn, head of the House Transportation Committee. "With the volatility of gas prices I'm not sure if (drivers) would notice. This is money that will come in sooner and they will be able to see it put to use faster."
Clibborn cautioned Monday, as she did when she unveiled the package in February, the content may change further before she trots out a document for public consumption next week.
"I'll have this finalized so people know what we can buy with this amount," she said.
Democratic leaders in the House and Senate and Gov. Jay Inslee are pushing for approval of a transportation funding package this session rather than going to voters in November.
They say the importance of doing so will become clearer this week when the Senate and House issue their respective transportation budgets. Neither budget is expected to include money for major new projects because there is no revenue to pay for them; income from gas tax hikes enacted in 2003 and 2005 are paying off the bonds for hundreds of completed projects.
On Feb. 20, House Democrats rolled out their Connecting Washington plan to generate nearly $9.8 billion for transportation over 10 years. Of the total, about $6 billion would be in new revenue with most of the remainder coming from the sale of bonds.
Clibborn said her revamped proposal would raise about $7.5 billion over 12 years of which $4.5 billion would be in new money and the rest tied to bonds.
Bumping up the gas tax by a dime would bring in a projected $2.53 billion, according to estimates in the original plan. It also would push Washington's gas tax, already among the highest in the country, to 47.5 cents per gallon.
Gone is an annual car tab fee she set at 0.7 percent of a vehicle's value which would have brought in $2 billion.
"That is a very unpopular idea. I just couldn't get it through the Senate," she said.
Clibborn also axed a 0.3 percent hike in the hazardous substance tax which could have netted nearly $900 million and a $25 fee on each sale of a bicycle valued at $500 or more. That could have brought in $1 million over a decade.
"It hurt the little retailer," she explained. "It raised almost no money. It was going to be a hassle for the small businesses and I'm not interest in making it harder for small businesses."
She left in place new county auditor fees, hikes in weight fees for commercial vehicles and added options for local transportation and transit boards to raise money.
She's added an increase in the weight fee of passenger vehicles to raise an estimated $729 million. It will make it more costly to register a vehicle each year; however, she said it won't be as much as it would have been with an excise tax.
With all the puts and takes, Clibborn said Monday she's received words of support from Inslee, House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, and Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, who is a co-chair of the Senate Transportation Committee.
David Postman, Inslee's spokesman, said the governor is open to the changes if it will help get the package through. "He really wants a plan," Postman said.
Rep. Marko Liias, D-Edmonds, a member of the House transportation panel, said his support will be tied to where the money is spent. "If it doesn't solve the problems in our area, then it's not the right package," he said.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com

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