Washington state Democrats, GOP pave way for gas tax fight on long road to transportation budget

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Four transportation budget proposals in the Washington Legislature would mean an increase in how much Washington drivers pay at the pump.

Washington drivers pay the fourth-highest gas tax in the nation at 49.4 cents per gallon, and a proposal from state Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, would shoot that number up 18 cents to the highest state gas tax phased over two years.

The steep increase is part of Fey’s $27 billion transportation proposal putting $5 billion towards road maintenance and $2 billion for federally-mandated fish culverts over 16 years.

A $10 billion plan from state Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, would raise the gas tax by just three cents. It devotes $25 million to repairing the West Seattle Bridge and $500 million to replacing the 103-year-old I-5 Columbia River Bridge.

At a Friday news conference, the ranking Republican Transportation Committee member said it’s time people pay for what they travel on.

For King, they include bicyclists, transit riders, and ferry passengers, who would see a 2-cent sales tax hike, a 20-cent per trip fee, and a 25-cent per crossing surcharge, respectively. Uber or Lyft passengers would see an additional 50-cent per ride fee.

“Every time we build a new bridge, every time we fix an interchange, there is economic development that takes place,” King said. “That economic development brings jobs, those jobs bring wages, those people who make those wages go out and spend it.”

Half of King’s eight-year proposal pays for roadway maintenance whose shorter timeline is meant to encourage state lawmakers to realign transportation plans with emerging technologies.

Funding transportation will prove challenging for state lawmakers this session as the state contends with as much as $225 million in transportation revenue lost to 2020’s pandemic-induced shutdowns.

State Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, puts about $2 billion of his $15 billion plan towards road preservation and raises the state gas tax by 6 cents.

Hobbs, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, includes a carbon fee of $20 per metric ton in his 16-year plan compared to Fey’s $15 carbon fee.

In 2021, Washington ranked among the worst five states to drive in according to personal finance site WalletHub, which based its findings on the state’s high cost of vehicle ownership and aging roads which earned a C- from the American Society of Civil Engineers in 2020, up from a D+ in 2019.

Transportation also accounts for half of Washington’s CO2 emissions, according to the Washington Department of Ecology. Traffic is a big bottleneck for the state’s goal of seeing net zero CO2 emissions by 2050, which would require it to remove the equivalent of some 12.3 million gas-powered vehicles off the road.

King’s plan offers $300 million in tax credits for hydrogen-powered vehicles and new hydrogen-service stations paid for in part from the state operating budget.

House Bill 1204 would go one step farther and require every new vehicle sold in the state to be electric by 2030. It passed the House Transportation Committee by a vote of 17-12 on Monday and awaits a thumbs up by the Rules Committee for a floor vote.

“By setting a target date for the transition to electric vehicles, Clean Cars 2030 builds clarity around the future growth of the state’s EV market,” said Matthew Metz, co-executive director of the nonprofit environmental group Coltura. “We’re not resting until this bill becomes law.”

Critics still argue more electric vehicles will not ease Seattle’s traffic congestion, which a study by Apartment Guide pegged as among the worst in the nation.

Last year, a bill from state Rep. Sharon Shewmake, D-Bellingham, aimed to swap out the state’s current goals of “congestion relief” and “improved freight mobility” with ones such as accessibility, safety, and environmental health.

Research by the Urban Institute finds that low-income workers of color in cities like Seattle most dependent on public transit often see the longest commutes from neighborhoods with less historic investment in transportation.

A 12-year plan from Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle, is the least highway friendly. It sets aside $2 billion into multimodal transportation grants and $333 million for transit, walking, and biking projects or more than double the $115 million included in Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed two-year budget.

Saldaña’s plan includes $1.4 billion for a trestle project in Hobbs’s district and only $450 million for the Columbia Crossing bridge. It would set aside just $1.9 billion for road maintenance and levy a tax on luxury yachts and aircraft.

The four proposed plans have just under two months to pass out of committee before the Washington Legislature adjourns on April 25.

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