Voters are open to paying more for transportation, survey finds

OLYMPIA — A new statewide survey is giving lawmakers and the governor a lot to think about as they consider asking voters next year to increase transportation taxes and fees.

The poll found most Washington residents don’t think the state is in immediate need of money for transportation, yet they still may agree to pay more if convinced the new dollars will actually fix roads, keep ferries afloat and expand bus service.

But it won’t be an easy sell, and it definitely cannot be a hard sell.

“People are not shutting the door. They’re willing to listen,” said Andrew Thibault, a principal of EMC Research in Seattle, which conducted the survey released this week. “If you cry wolf, people don’t want to hear it. But when you talk about the benefits of investment, it does increase support.”

Only 18 percent of the 5,518 people polled think the state is facing a financial crisis in its transportation system. However, 59 percent said they would support raising taxes or fees for the purpose of maintaining highways and reducing congestion.

Trying to figure out which means of raising revenue they would approve is the tricky part for Gov. Chris Gregoire and lawmakers should they ask voters for additional money in 2012. Survey results will help them set the size and scope of any plan and understand the political risk involved if they decide to try.

“I felt like the survey told us a lot about what had to be in the package,” said Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee. “I want us to be ready to go.”

The survey proposed nine options for raising revenue and only three received support of a majority. Not surprisingly, they are ones that those polled probably figure they can avoid paying.

A licensing fee on electric vehicles received backing from 60 percent and imposing a fee on vehicles with high emissions enjoyed support of 61 percent. A slight majority of 52 percent endorsed tolls as “a good way to fund investment” in the transportation system.

Those polled split on whether to hike the gas tax — the state’s primary source of transportation dollars — with 46 percent in support and 50 percent opposed. The idea only garnered majority backing from those living along the I-5 corridor from Snohomish County to Thurston County, with clear opposition registered in the rest of the state.

There was strong support for allowing fees to rise annually at the rate of inflation but not for indexing the gas tax in the same manner.

And those surveyed soundly rejected generating revenue by levying a sales tax on gas, tapping into a statewide property tax or imposing a fee based on the number of miles traveled.

“I think these results show people generally understand our transportation system and the challenges and do support taking care of what we have. That doesn’t mean they’re going to open up their wallets,” said Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond. “It’s a hard sell, a very hard sell.”

Thibault spent much of the week sharing results of the survey conducted earlier this fall for the Washington State Transportation Commission.

On Tuesday, he presented them to Connecting Washington Task Force created by Gregoire to craft a 10-year plan for the state’s transportation system and identify potential sources of money to pay for ongoing maintenance plus improvements. Civic, business, labor and environmental leaders sit on the panel, which will issue a report Dec. 12.

On Thursday, the governor sat down with Hammond and Democrat and Republican leaders on the House and Senate transportation committees on the same subject. Gregoire will tell the Legislature early next year whether she thinks a ballot measure should be tried.

Part of the decision hinges on whether Gregoire’s proposed half-cent increase in the sales tax is put to a statewide vote in the spring. If so, going to voters for transportation may be too much.

The size of any funding proposal also is a concern. There’s talk of trying to raise up to $20 billion in the next decade. By comparison, in 2005 the state approved a 9.5-cent increase in the gas tax plus new and higher fees based on the weight of a vehicle to fund $8.5 billion over 16 years.

“What is doable has to be an overriding issue,” Gregoire told task force members Tuesday. “It has to be absolutely simple. People have to know what they’re buying.”

Everett Councilman Paul Roberts, who serves on the task force, said he thinks voters would respond “most positively” to a modest-sized package that steers money into maintaining existing roads and investing in projects that will spur economic development.

“The public is telling us pretty clearly that maintaining the system is important,” Roberts said. “We need to help people understand these things are not free.”

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

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