It’s not a done deal just yet, but the Washington State Legislature is close to approving a 16 year, $16 billion tax bill to fund transportation improvements in the state. Notably, this transportation package proposal calls for increasing the state gas tax by 11.9-cents, phased in over several years. In a move The Olympian says happens “less than once a decade,” state lawmakers made the unprecedented move of telling their constituents that they will pay more at the pump in return for improved mobility options. While some lawmakers suggested this tax increase should go before a public referendum (a common strategy by those who want to defeat revenue increasing legislation), lawmakers appear to be bypassing that option. However, according to the same opinion piece by the Olympian there are some limitations:
• The transportation package fails to link investments to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles. The transportation sector causes about 45 percent of Washington’s carbon emissions, the largest source in the state. But lawmakers rejected a cap-and-trade plan that would have put a price on carbon emissions and used some of it to pay for transportation.
• Inslee agreed to a “poison pill” that takes away state transit investments if the governor enacts a clean fuel standard via Department of Ecology rules. Inslee had proposed a clean fuels law to reduce carbon emissions that contribute to global warming.
• The budget falls short on funding for fish passages under roads. Treaty tribes sued to improve stream flows under state roads and highways, and some 825 fish-friendly culverts are needed. The state may need to spend about $2.4 billion to comply with a 2013 federal court injunction. The budget provides some $300 million over 16 years, which is more than in the past, but a fraction of the estimated $310 million per biennium that would comply with the injunction.
• It shifts millions of dollars from sales taxes on highway projects out of the state general fund and back into road construction budgets, effectively cutting the general fund, which pays for schools and state operations.
Regardless of its shortcomings, it’s exciting to see state lawmakers willing to take on this politically challenging issue. It also shows that increasing a gas tax by more than 10 cents is still possible in the U.S. It will be interesting to see where this goes in the months to come.