By The Herald Editorial Board
It might not count as a year-end bonus for most, but state residents may avoid an increase in the state’s gas tax following the legislative session that begins next month.
Gov. Jay Inslee, in releasing his $61.8 billion supplemental budget last week, announced no plans for new taxes; nor tax cuts, which upset Republican lawmakers who noted the latest revenue forecasts have boosted expected revenue to an estimated $60.2 billion for the current budget cycle and $64 billion for the 2023-25 budget.
Inslee instead proposed using the robust tax collection and remaining federal pandemic relief funds to address pressing needs regarding homelessness and affordable housing; covid’s continuing impacts on education and students’ academic, social and emotional needs; climate change and environment; the state’s nursing shortage; and a $600 million top-off of the state’s “rainy day fund.”
Not to argue against any of those proposals, but state lawmakers still will need to make a transportation package a priority during their 60-day session that begins Jan. 10.
As recently as this year’s session, state lawmakers were considering a transportation budget that included an 18-cent-a-gallon increase in the gas tax, currently at 49.4 cents a gallon and the sixth’s highest in the nation.
Sen. Marko Liias, D-Everett, appointed earlier this month as chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, following former chairman Steve Hobbs’ appointment to secretary of state, said in an interview last week that while a gas tax wasn’t completely off the table, lawmakers were likely to be “looking to other options for funding infrastructure projects that wouldn’t hit working families quite so hard,” as the pandemic and its economic effects linger into next year.
But without a significant revenue boost from a gas tax increase, what will that mean for a transportation budget and the state’s infrastructure needs? Keep in mind that Roger Millar, the state’s transportation secretary, has warned that because of a backlog of maintenance work the state should be spending $2 billion a year on neglected maintenance and preservation on highways and bridges but is routinely spending only half that amount.
And what of long-pending projects, such as replacement of the U.S. 2 trestle and I-5’s crossing over the Columbia River and continuing congestion on I-5 and I-405?
Liias, in his return to the transportation committee, has been meeting with committee members from both parties as well as representatives of the House transportation panels on what to include in a budget.
Those conversations have outlined priorities that include maintenance as well as higher-profile projects such as the Columbia River bridge, the U.S. 2 trestle and bus rapid-transit lanes for I-405, but, Liias said, there’s acceptance that some projects statewide may have to be put off.
“Nothing is fluff,” Liias said. “It’s all important, but we have to look at what we can get done and makes plans to come back to the rest.”
Considering what revenue sources lawmakers might turn to, Republicans have urged that the sales tax from vehicle sales be diverted to the state’s transportation needs, removing that revenue from the general fund. Democrats, Liias said, are hesitant to make a permanent change like that, but are open to one-time investments now available, including using some of the federal pandemic relief left in the general fund.
Lawmakers also will have revenue coming, beginning in 2023, from the carbon cap-and-invest program that was adopted this year, Liias said.
Returning to the governor’s budget proposals, Liias said he’s supportive of specific proposals, including investments in hybrid ferries and Inslee’s plan to use $100 million to offer rebates to those purchasing electric vehicles, to encourage the transition from fossil fuels to electric.
The transportation sector remains the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Washington — about 45 percent — and affords the greatest opportunity for reduction of those emissions. The impact from that transition, Liias said, is further heightened because so much of the state’s electricity is already produced from hydroelectric sources, as more coal-generated electricity is taken offline.
But there’s room in the electric vehicle rebate program to remove even more carbon, says Coltura, a Seattle-based advocate for the transition to EVs. Coltura, in a release, said it is generally supportive of the governor’s proposed rebate program, which would provide $7,500 for new EVs and $5,000 for used EVs. Yet, even at $100 million, the incentives would cover fewer than 14,000 vehicles, less than 5 percent of the 300,000 new vehicles sold every year in the state.
Coltura has suggested the state offer rebates that would focus on the state’s gasoline “superusers,” those typically driving SUVs and trucks, driving three times as many miles as average drivers and consuming more than 1,000 gallons of fuel each year. Offering larger rebates to those trading in those larger vehicles has the potential to reduce more carbon emissions than an across-the-board rebate program.
It’s significant for those living and working in Snohomish County that Liias’ appointment — following the departure of Hobbs — has kept the leadership of the Senate Transportation Committee in the hands of a county-based lawmaker, preserving the presence of a legislator who knows its transportation needs.
“It’s OK to be somewhat parochial, as Snohomish County is a state leader in aerospace and manufacturing jobs,” Liias said. “We have to make sure the engine of opportunity is still going full strength.”
The state is fortunate that — even as the pandemic hangs on — tax revenues have remained strong. But to sustain that revenue, lawmakers will have to ensure that the state’s transportation needs have sufficient energy to power that engine for Snohomish County and the rest of the state.