Governor unveils $3.6 billion plan to pay for state roads, ferries, bridges

OLYMPIA — Gov. Chris Gregoire on Tuesday unveiled a plan to raise $3.6 billion for the upkeep of roads, bridges and ferries and pay the bulk of it with a new fee on the state’s oil refineries.

The governor used her annual State of the State address to argue that Washington needs the funds in the coming decade because it is woefully short of money to patch potholes, repave highways, keep state ferries operating and improve major routes crisscrossing the state.

“When we build roads, they don’t take care of themselves. When you buy a car, you pay for it, you maintain it by changing the oil, rotating the tires and make the repairs,” she said.

“It’s the same with our roads, bridges and ferries. We bought them new, but unfortunately, we didn’t put money aside for maintenance. The consequence for us is a wake-up call.”

The linchpin of Gregoire’s proposal is a new fee of $1.50 per barrel of oil refined by refineries in the state. That’s projected to bring in $2.75 billion, which is roughly enough to maintain the existing transportation system and nothing more, she said.

“Our oil companies are getting all the profit and leaving us with the bill. We can do better,” she said in her speech to a joint session of the Legislature.

Her package also includes new fees of $100 on each electric vehicle and $5 per studded tire, plus an increase in weight fees levied on commercial and passenger vehicles. Car owners, who pay the latter fee upon renewal of registration tabs, would see this portion of their bill rise $15.

Republicans immediately rejected the oil barrel fee, saying it would lead to higher gas prices. They called it a tax and said it could not garner the required two-thirds vote of lawmakers for passage.

They also expressed concern that revenues from a barrel fee could be easily steered from transportation into paying for the state’s day-to-day operations. The state constitution requires gas tax money to be spent solely on transportation, but these dollars aren’t the same, they said.

“I like the fact she’s concentrating on maintenance and operation,” said Rep. Mike Armstrong, R-Wenatchee, the ranking Republican on the House Transportation Committee. “The biggest concern I have is how we lock those dollars up, because none of it is protected. If (a bill) can be written in a way that the dollars cannot be swept, I’d be a lot more comfortable.”

Leaders of the House and Senate Republican caucuses sounded much more negative toward the plan.

“Right now, it’s off the table for us,” said House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis.

The package put forth by Gregoire is a smidgeon of the $21 billion package recommended by the Connecting Washington Task Force she led last year. Members of that panel had wanted her to endorse a multitude of revenue-raising measures, including more tolling and an increase of the gas tax.

Gregoire considered going to the ballot with a gas tax measure to raise money to build new roads, ferries and bridges, said Jennifer Ziegler, Gregoire’s transportation adviser. But the governor is pushing to put a sales tax increase on the ballot, and, in December, she said it might be difficult to win voter support of both in the same year.

Her plan would steer $2.67 billion into covering shortfalls in highway maintenance and operations of Washington State Ferries. Another $310 million would be available for road projects in cities and counties, $150 million for public transit, $100 million for the state’s share of Amtrak service and $200 million to sustain the ranks of Washington State Patrol troopers.

“I admire her for standing up and recognizing the needs, but we’re going to have to do more at some point,” said Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Commission. The panel will discuss the proposal at a hearing Wednesday afternoon.

Some of Gregoire’s proposal is quite familiar to lawmakers. Last year, the Senate approved a $100 fee on electric vehicles, but it did not come up for a vote in the House. Meanwhile, the House approved a bill raising $85 million by hiking several car-related fees, but it did not receive a vote in the Senate.

Rep. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, said some pieces may be worthy.

“I’m not in favor of the barrel tax at this time because it can’t help but raise the cost of gas. Some of the other fees might be reasonable to look at,” she said. “Bottom line is we cannot do anything that might injure economic recovery in the state.”

The plan by the numbers

How much money the fees are projected to raise:

• $1.50 fee per barrel of oil: $2.67 billion

• $100 fee on each electric vehicle: $10 million

• 15 percent increase in heavy commercial license fee: $177 million

• $15 hike in weight fee for passenger vehicles: $760 million

• $5 fee per studded tire: $7.5 million

Where the money would go:

$2.67 billion to the state to maintain roads, operate ferries and preserve bridges.

$310 million in grants for cities and counties.

$250 million to curb storm water runoff into Puget Sound.

$200 million for Washington State Patrol staffing.

$150 million in grants for public transit.

$100 million for state share of Amtrak service.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623;

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