Brian Henderson of Renton plugs in his Kia Soul EV electric vehicle at a charging station in Sultan on in June of 2017. While electric vehicle owners pay a flat fee to the state for transportation needs, they don’t pay a gas tax, which would increase under two proposals in the Legislature (Ian Terry / Herald file photo)

Brian Henderson of Renton plugs in his Kia Soul EV electric vehicle at a charging station in Sultan on in June of 2017. While electric vehicle owners pay a flat fee to the state for transportation needs, they don’t pay a gas tax, which would increase under two proposals in the Legislature (Ian Terry / Herald file photo)

Editorial: Yes to gas tax hike, but this has to be the last

Transportation needs must be funded, but the gas tax is dwindling as a sustainable revenue source.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Soon, although not soon enough for most, the state economy and the daily activity that supports it will emerge from their covid-induced slumbers and we’ll be back on the road and back to normal.

Sitting in traffic.

For many Snohomish County motorists, that means a return to the familiar if not enjoyable navigation of congestion on I-5, I-405 and the U.S. 2 trestle, among others.

It’s not that fixes haven’t been proposed, but construction projects — as well as ongoing maintenance and preservation and other transportation needs — aren’t cheap. A complete replacement for the U.S. 2 trestle is estimated to cost about $1.5 billion. And the state has other significant work to fund even beyond the routine maintenance and preservation of existing roads, bridges and the ferry system, including a long-promised joint project with Oregon to replace I-5’s span over the Columbia River and a mandate from the U.S. Supreme Court — with a 2030 deadline — to restore salmon habitat and access to spawning areas, blocked by culverts running beneath highways and roads.

Which is why state lawmakers — at least the Democrats with majorities in the House and Senate — are stepping up with proposals for increases to the gas tax and new taxes and other fee increases.

House Democrats last week proposed a $25.8 billion, 16-year transportation package that would be funded through an 18-cent-a-gallon increase to the state’s gas tax and a new fee on carbon emissions. That nearly $26 billion pool would be divvied up, providing $4.6 billion for highway maintenance; $3.5 billion for state ferries, including new non-diesel electric ferries, $3.5 billion for culvert replacement and $6.7 billion for major projects, including $1 billion for the I-5 Columbia bridge.

Not specified in the House Democrats’ spending plan is funding for the U.S. 2 trestle or other projects, but Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, and Rep. Emily Wicks, D-Everett, a committee member, said Tuesday during a virtual press conference that the intention is to provide funding for the trestle, among other projects.

About $17.9 billion of the package would be funded through the gas tax increase, with another $7.5 billion from the carbon fee. While not a direct tax on fuels, the fee is expected to increase the price of gasoline and diesel.

The House Democrats’ proposal joins a expected plan from Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, similar to the Forward Washington plan he has pitched the past two years that would generate $17 billion over 15 years. In the past Hobbs’ proposal has specified funding, with about $2 billion for Snohomish County projects, including improvements to the U.S. 2 trestle and additional lanes for I-405 between Highways 522 and 527.

Along with a gas-tax increase, Hobbs also has proposed a carbon fee or a carbon cap-and-trade program as a funding source.

Hobbs, in comments to The Herald’s Jerry Cornfield, called the House Democrat’s plan “ambitious” but seemed open to negotiating if it passes.

Where the proposals part most significantly may be in the committee chairmen’s positions regarding legislation to adopt a low-carbon fuel standard. The House has twice adopted legislation for the standard, adopting a carbon-trading system to require greenhouse gas reductions in gas and diesel fuels. Fey said their plan assumes passage of the standard. Hobbs has opposed the legislation.

Republicans in the House and Senate, rather than a gas tax, have previously proposed using the sales tax from the purchase of vehicles for transportation funding, which could provide a significant and sustainable source of revenue. But Democrats have countered that such a move doesn’t suggest how to address the hole that would leave in the state’s general fund.

One distinction in the House proposal is worth noting; it would tie the gas tax to the Consumer Price Index, allowing it to adjust with the rate of inflation. One of the lingering problems with the gas tax is that it has never kept pace with inflation and has seen its purchasing power erode over the years.

Neither proposal, however, addresses the other lingering problems with the gas tax. More than just being an unpopular move among those paying at the pump, the gas tax’s days as a reliable and sustainable funding source are limited, a problem that has confronted the Legislature for several years. Along with its inability to keep up with inflation, the effectiveness of the gas tax as a revenue source is further eroded because comparatively less fuel is being consumed as vehicle fuel efficiency increases and people drive fewer miles, especially as seen now during the covid-hobbled economy.

Nor does a gas tax do anything to adequately or fairly account for the increasing number of hybrid, electric and other non-fossil-fuel-powered vehicles on the road. Those vehicles are charged a flat fee, but one that doesn’t account for miles driven.

Even at nearly 50 cents a gallon — the fourth-highest state gas tax in the nation — revenue from the gas tax is expected to decline by as much as 45 percent by 2035.

That drop was the impetus for a state Transportation Commission study, requested by the Legislature, launching a pilot program for a road usage charge, tracking a vehicle’s mileage to determine a per-mile fee to be paid in lieu of a gas tax. The road usage charge has met with opposition from some drivers, mainly out of concerns for privacy because of the technology used to determine a vehicle’s mileage, but those concerns can be addressed by a range of options and technologies that can limit or erase data on location and report only the number of miles driven.

We have seen no significant proposals from either chamber or party to begin work to shift from the gas tax to a road usage charge, as recommended in the Transportation Commission’s final report, issued last January.

There seem few immediate options now — other than a gas tax increase — that can provide the revenue that the state’s transportation needs will require between now and 2035. But, with the 10- to 25-year transition period recommended by the commission for the road usage charge to fully replace the gas tax, any gas tax increase adopted this year should be the Legislature’s last.

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