Raising gas tax not answer to funding transportation

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The effort to significantly upgrade Washington state’s roadways has been stuck in neutral for two years.

A new approach to funding transportation is needed.

It’s unlikely a major transportation plan is going to get in gear when the Legislature meets again in January — at least as long as its funding is tied to a hefty hike in the state gasoline tax.

Unfortunately, that likely means progress on four-laning of U.S. Highway 12 from Walla Walla to the Tri-Cities will be stalled. During this year’s legislative session the project was a high priority in the proposal linked to an 11.5 cent increase in Washington’s gasoline tax.

Didn’t happen. Nor did it happen the year before. Even lesser increases were rebuffed.

A gasoline tax of any amount has become very unpopular with the public. The already high price of gasoline, now edging up to near $4 a gallon, makes the idea of a tax driving it higher unpalatable for voters.

The current reality is that the state has nowhere else to turn for the billions of dollars needed to upgrade the infrastructure. The gas tax has been the source for transportation funding.

But the amount being collected from gasoline taxes has been dwindling as drivers purchase more fuel-efficient cars, hybrids and electric vehicles. That means those driving older gas guzzlers are paying a greater share of the transportation tax.

It’s a model technology is making obsolete.

So where does the state turn to fund transportation projects?

Lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle are giving it thought. The trick is to come up with a tax plan that is seen as fair by voters and a way to allocate those funds in a responsible, effective way.

Reform is needed that acknowledges the inequity of funding roadwork based on gasoline consumption. It is a regressive tax. Those who can afford new, fuel-efficient (or electric) vehicles pay little or nothing while those who can’t afford to dump their gas guzzler pick up the tab. In addition, truckers hauling food and goods pay a larger percentage of the tax that is ultimately passed on to consumers with higher prices in the stores.

The state needs to look at a system in which either a flat fee is charged or the miles driven per year are taxed. Figuring out how many miles should be taxed would be a challenge, but one that could be overcome. For example, perhaps mileage could be recorded when annual license tabs are renewed.

Change is needed. Raising the gasoline tax doesn’t seem popular with the public, which makes it unlikely it would be approved to fund transportation improvements.

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