Bills would give local governments more options to raise gas taxes for roads

OLYMPIA — Cities and counties could soon be asking voters’ permission to impose a gas tax to pay for paving roads and plugging potholes.

Local governments would be allowed to collect up to 3 cents a gallon with voter approval under bills circulating in the Legislature to help cash-strapped communities raise money for transportation improvements.

In addition to the gas tax, the bills provide broader avenues to increasing road levies and car tab fees as well as reviving a motor vehicle excise tax.

The Senate Transportation Committee will conduct a public hearing Thursday on its version of the legislation.

Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, the chairwoman of the panel, said the legislation responds to what city and county leaders requested.

“These are not things everyone will do, but it gives them options,” she said. “They’re asking for something. I feel pretty confident we’ll have support to move the bill.”

Representatives of the Association of Washington Cities and the Washington State Association of Counties reacted positively to the multi-pronged approach.

“AWC has long supported a menu of local transportation options,” wrote Ashley Probart, legislative and policy advocate, in an email. “Although the bill might need some fine-tuning, I do expect to testify in support to the sections that are relevant to cities.”

Transit supporters are keeping an open mind but want the legislation massaged to cover the needs of bus riders.

“We’ve been advocating for flexible and robust revenue sources and especially encouraging those dollars be spent on repairing and maintaining our roads as well as sustaining our transit system,” said Viet Shelton, spokesman for Transportation Choices Coalition. “If the bill doesn’t speak specifically to the needs of transit, we’ll have concerns.”

The arrival of this bill is a sign the Legislature is steering clear of the 10-year, $3.6 billion transportation funding proposal put forth by Gov. Chris Gregoire.

Instead, it appears lawmakers are chopping her proposal into its parts and dealing with each separately. For example, Gregoire called for new fees on studded tires and electric vehicles and lawmakers are pushing separate bills for both of those.

And the governor’s plan suggested a couple of local options be expanded but didn’t go so far as to suggest cities be allowed to impose a gas tax.

Existing law allows counties, with voter approval, to collect a fuel tax equal to 10 percent of the state gas tax. Today that would be 3.75 cents a gallon because the state rate is 37.5 cents a gallon. No county has done it.

“We tried it before but counties turned it down because it was too convoluted,” Haugen said.

Under the proposal, cities would gain the same taxing ability as counties and the 10 percent rate would be removed, replaced with language allowing an increase of “one cent, two cents or three cents” on each gallon of gas.

Also, the combined amount levied by the county and a city could not exceed three cents. In other words, if a city approved a one-cent tax, the county could impose no more than two cents in that city.

It’s not immediately clear how much money this could generate. Rough estimates prepared by the Department of Transportation show Snohomish County could net about $3.53 million from a penny increase and $10.58 million from three cents.

Another option in the bill lets city and county leaders — with voter approval — hike the portion of property taxes for roads up to 3 percent a year. Today, there is a 1 percent cap on increases.

The bill also gives transportation benefit districts two options it does not have today — and then makes clear the districts could do one but not both.

One option is to collect a $40 fee on vehicle registration, up from the current state-allowed maximum of $20. This could be done by a simple majority vote of the district board of directors.

The bill also would let these benefit districts charge residents an excise tax of 1 percent on the value of their vehicles. This idea would need voter approval, as well.

Tim Eyman of Mukilteo, who’s carved out a political career by fighting most of these proposals, blasted the proposed bill.

“This is a Pandora’s box of a bill that may promise voter approval but you know they’ll take away that protection when no one’s looking,” he said.

Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, who leads the House Transportation Committee, said no option solves all the problems for a community and each is politically difficult to pursue.

“Everything in here has its own drag,” she said. “It’s possible that not all of it will get through but maybe some will.”

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

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