Democrats propose 10-cent gas tax hike to pay for roads

OLYMPIA — House Democrats set sail through treacherous political waters Wednesday with a plan to raise $10 billion for transportation in the next decade by hiking the gas tax, reviving the motor vehicle excise tax and levying a fee on bicyclists.

More than $3.9 billion of the funds are earmarked for new projects, including building a second bridge over the Snohomish River on Highway 9 and installing cable barriers on a stretch of U.S. 2 near Sultan.

Money for relocating the Mukilteo Ferry Terminal, building a 144-car state ferry, supporting Community Transit agencies and assisting cities and counties also is included.

“Our roads do more than move cars from one place to another; they connect our communities,” said Rep. Marko Liias, D-Edmonds, a member of the House Transportation Committee. “This investment package protects the right of every person — rich or poor, young or old — to get around by improving transportation.”

But it faces a difficult voyage through the Legislature and could wind up on the ballot instead. Right now many Republicans and some Democrats think this proposal digs too deeply into the pockets of car owners.

“Is it going to garner my support? Highly unlikely,” said Rep. Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish.

The plan’s chief architect said she knows tweaks are needed.

“This is the first step. It is a little early to know if we can get this done,” said Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee who spent months stitching this plan together. “I don’t know what will last and what will be popular.”

The biggest chunk of new revenue, $2.53 billion, would come from boosting the state share of the gas tax by a dime to 47.5 cents a gallon. It would rise 2 cents a year for five years.

This would be the third gas tax hike in a decade in Washington. Lawmakers approved a nickel increase in 2003 and a 9.5-cent increase in 2005.

“With prior tax increases, our state built an off-ramp in the wrong place, a ferry that doesn’t work well in Puget Sound and faulty pontoons that may jeopardize the new 520 bridge project. Now, House Democrats want to charge Washington drivers the highest gas tax in the nation,” said Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, the ranking Republican on transportation panel.

Bringing back the despised motor vehicle excise tax, or MVET, could generate $2.1 billion, according to the proposal. It calls for an annual tax of 0.7 percent on the value of a car, about $140 for a $20,000 vehicle.

Voters got rid of this tax in 1999 when they passed Initiative 695. At that time the rate was 2.2 percent.

Clibborn said her plan is “defendable” because it does not restore the high tax rate of the past and will direct the dollars to transit districts, the ferry system and local governments.

Weight fees for commercial trucks would rise and a state tax on hazardous chemicals would go up in the proposal. There is also a new sales fee of $25 on bicycles worth $500 or more.

Leaders of business, labor and environmental groups stood behind Clibborn as she laid out the details at a news conference Wednesday. They’re united in wanting lawmakers to support new revenue for transportation though they didn’t endorse this plan outright.

“The reality is we have incredible demand and very limited resources to address infrastructure preservation and the construction of new projects,” said Michael Ennis of the Association of Washington Business. “The challenge between now and the end of session will be striking the right balance between all of the state’s needs and the appropriate funding mechanisms.”

Jeff Johnson, president of the Washington State Labor Council, echoed the sentiment.

“We just want to see how we can put out the most balanced package and make the most investment possible,” he said.

The proposal steers money into widening I-405 between Renton and Bellevue, building a new bridge across the Columbia River and widening I-90 near the Snoqualmie Pass.

There is $631 million for maintenance of roads and bridges and $675 million for cities and counties, according to materials released Wednesday.

In Snohomish County, $109 million is penciled in for a new bridge across the Snohomish River and $15 million for cable barriers or other safety improvements on Highway 2.

“The construction industry across the state was the hardest hit by the recession, leaving many workers unemployed or underemployed. This package will not only help businesses and commuters, it will also help get these folks back to work,” said Rep. Luis Moscoso, D-Mountlake Terrace, a vice chairman on the House roads panel.

Community Transit is in line for up to $20 million in state funds. The transit agency also could try to collect a local motor vehicle excise tax as well.

While Democrats seek success in the Legislature, voters might wind up making the decision.

Today, a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate is required for passage because of the tax hikes. The state Supreme Court will soon issue a ruling in a case challenging the constitutionality of the requirement. If justices keep the bar at two-thirds, it all but assures any funding package will go to voters.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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