Democrats in the Washington State House are proposing to pay for transportation improvements partly by raising the gas tax by 18 cents. (Andrea Brown / Herald file)

Democrats in the Washington State House are proposing to pay for transportation improvements partly by raising the gas tax by 18 cents. (Andrea Brown / Herald file)

Gas tax increase part of Dems’ massive transportation package

An 18-cent gas tax hike and a fee on carbon emissions would raise $25.8 billion for new roads and more.

OLYMPIA — State House Democrats on Tuesday unveiled an ambitious 16-year, $25.8 billion package of transportation improvements statewide paid for with an 18-cent hike in the gas tax and a new fee on carbon emissions.

Democratic Rep. Jake Fey of Tacoma said the proposal is “much more substantial than any in state history” because money is needed to cover the cost of major projects, such as replacing the I-5 bridge over the Columbia River in Vancouver and removing state-owned culverts that are blocking fish passage, as required by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Fey, who is chairman of the House Transportation Committee, also said nearly half the money raised would go to maintaining and preserving local roads and state highways and new capital projects that lawmakers would determine as the legislation moves along.

Specifically, $6.7 billion is designated for projects, of which $1 billion is earmarked for the new I-5 bridge between Washington and Oregon. Another $4.6 billion is for maintenance and preservation; $3.5 billion is for culverts; and $3.5 billion would go to Washington State Ferries. That latter sum would be used to buy new hybrid ferries and convert at least one vessel in the current fleet to be electric-powered.

And, Fey said, there will be a focus on equity by targeting spending toward disadvantaged communities while working to boost the number of contracts issued to minority- and women-owned businesses.

The proposal is a product of 90 “listening sessions” with people and organizations conducted since the end of last legislative session, he said.

“This is a high-water mark. It says this is the direction House Democrats want to go,” Fey said in an interview.

Absent from the package is specific funding for replacement of the Highway 2 trestle in Snohomish County.

Fey noted that only one project, the Columbia River bridge, is identified at this point. Others, including the trestle, are certain to receive funding as the process moves forward, he said.

“We’ll make sure we get some funding that way,” said Rep. Emily Wicks, D-Everett, a transportation committee member.

As outlined Tuesday, the package would raise $26.8 billion in revenue.

Of that, $17.9 billion would come largely from the gas tax increase, which would be imposed over the next two years and indexed to inflation going forward. Diesel fuel taxes would rise 21 cents per gallon under the plan.

An additional $7.5 billion would come from the carbon fee, and $1.3 billion would come from vehicle fees and a higher rental-car tax. The carbon fee would start at $15 per metric ton of emissions, rising to $20 in the next biennium and $25 in the 2025-27 budget cycle.

Hiking the fuel tax up front will enable the state to finance the investments without issuing bonds, Fey said.

“We are really committed to moving a transportation package and getting it to the governor’s desk for signing,” said House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma. “I think this moves the ball down the field well.”

A different though familiar approach is expected to emerge in the Senate as early as next week.

Sen. Steve Hobbs, Democrat of Lake Stevens and chairman of the chamber’s transportation committee, said he’ll soon roll out a plan similar to the 15-year, $17 billion package he’s pushed the past two sessions.

That plan, which he calls “Forward Washington,” has counted on raising money from a gas tax hike, plus either a flat fee on carbon emissions or a cap-and-invest system.

Hobbs called the new House Democrats’ proposal “an ambitious package” and said he looks forward to negotiating with them if it passes.

Meanwhile, in the 2020 session, 32 House Democrats told Hobbs and Fey that they view passage of a clean fuel standard as a precondition to the passage of any transportation revenue package.

House Democrats passed bills establishing a low carbon fuel standard in each of the past two session, but Hobbs bottled them up in his committee. House Democrats are working quickly to send the bill to the Senate again this session.

The fuel standard and road package “belong together,” Fey said Tuesday.

Herald reporter Jerry Cornfield: jcornfield@heraldnet.com | @dospueblos

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