By The Yakima Herald-Republic Editorial Board
State and federal governments aren’t shy about labeling road construction projects with “Your highway taxes at work.” And like it or not, that is true; critical road projects — whether routine maintenance or the multibillion-dollar expansion of Interstate 90 over Snoqualmie Pass — would not be possible without taxes. Specifically, gasoline taxes that motorists pay at the pump.
The issue is of interest in Washington state, which has the second highest gas tax in the nation, at 67.8 cents per gallon. Of that, the state assesses 49.4 cents a gallon, and the federal government another 18.4 cents.
The federal figure hasn’t risen since the 1990s, despite occasional conversations about doing so. The state, meanwhile, has raised its tax twice in just the past dozen years, most recently in 2015 with a phased-in 11.9-cent-per-gallon increase that is now fully in effect.
The tax hike’s most visible proponent was state Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima. As chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, he rounded up Democratic and Republican legislative support for the bill that increased the tax to finance the Connecting Washington projects. King argued persuasively that without the extra money, the state could not have moved ahead on the I-90 expansion and improved access to Puget Sound ports, both of which are essential to the transport of Yakima Valley products. The money also is paying for $130 million in Yakima-area projects.
While the legislative vote to increase the tax was bipartisan, it was far from unanimous. One opponent was Wenatchee Republican state Rep. Cary Condotta, whose amendment to the most recent state budget called for thousands of stickers that will be affixed to gasoline pumps around the state. The stickers list fuel tax rates, broken down by state and federal taxes on gasoline and on diesel; a number of them have appeared in the Seattle area and are slated to spread statewide over the next three years during routine state inspections.
The program will cost about $4,000, or similar to the revenue raised by the purchase of between 5,900 to 8,100 gallons of gasoline, depending on whether one goes by the total tax or just the state share. And what might come from a case of motorist sticker shock? “It could make it more difficult to raise taxes,” Condotta told The Seattle Times in November.
That could be; it also could nudge the public toward looking at alternatives to the gas tax, which is losing its buying power amid improved fuel efficiency and, hence, fewer gallons purchased. The act of driving is also losing its allure among a number of folks, especially in large, congested cities with alternatives to driving one’s own car.
Condotta’s budget amendment on the stickers did win unanimous legislative approval. And why not? In addition to the stickers being transparent about transportation funding, this extra knowledge on the part of the public can help move ahead the discussion on how best to finance essential government services such as roads.
The following editorial appeared Tuesday in the Yakima Herald-Republic.