By Kylee Zabel, reporter, WNPA Olympia News Bureau
House Democrats rolled out a $10 billion 10-year transportation-revenue package Wednesday calling for, among other revenue sources, a 10-cent increase in the gas tax.
House Transportation Committee Chair Rep. Judy Clibborn (D- 41st District, Mercer Island) and fellow Democrat legislators introduced what they call the "Connecting Washington" plan, which is intended to relieve congestion on roadways, help with maintenance costs, manage storm water and connect Washington businesses to local, national and global markets.
“Improving our transportation system is critical to Washington’s economy,” said Steve Mullin, president of the Washington Roundtable. “This will be the start of a robust conversation in Olympia about how to address an estimated $50 billion in transportation needs.”
But some are opposed to increasing taxes at a time when Washington families are still struggling economically.
One of those opponents, Rep. Ed Orcutt (R-20th District, Kalama) said the Legislature shouldn’t be exploring how to raise taxes to fund new projects but should be considering reforms to reduce project costs and efficiently spend taxpayer dollars.
“We need to see how we can make our tax dollars go further before we reach further into taxpayers’ pockets,” he said.
The package includes seven sources of revenue to fund a variety of projects, including:
• $1 billion to the Puget Sound Gateway project (SR 167/SR509);
• $675 million for the widening of I-405 and connecting the express toll lanes to existing HOT lanes on I-405 and;
• $450 million to the Columbia River Crossing project, the maximum amount of funding needed from Washington state on the CRC.
More than $2.1 billion dollars would help fund further development of existing infrastructure, such as the aging fleet of Washington State Ferries, transit agencies and freight mobility improvements. In total, the package explicitly funds 11 projects and provides local governments with $675 million for infrastructure spending.
A total of $2.5 billion is expected to be raised by the gas tax. As the package stands now, there would be a 2-cent gas tax increase each year for five years, making the overall tax slightly less than 48 cents per gallon. In combination with state and federal gas taxes, a total of 66 cents per gallon would be charged at the pump.
Other revenue would come from Motor Vehicle Excise Tax (MVET) (about $2.1 billion), bonds ($3 billion), hazardous substance tax to help in storm water management ($897 million), vehicle licensing fee ($196 million), commercial gross weight fee ($102 million) and a bicycle sales fee of $25 on bicycles costing more than $500 ($1 million).
Since the package only compensates for new projects, matters such as the more than $1 billion budgeting shortfall of the SR 520 toll-bridge project are not addressed in the revenue proposal.
Opponents of the plan said a revenue package shouldn’t even be on the table. Instead, lawmakers should be looking to address policies and practices that increase public works costs. Trent England of the Freedom Foundation found the Democrats’ proposal to be outrageous considering the trend of rising gas prices.
“It shows how out of touch Olympia is when gas is at record highs and Washington families are feeling the pinch of that and you have urban politicians that want to impose a huge gas-tax increase on the entire state,” he said.
But Clibborn said she doesn’t worry about the gas tax adversely affecting Washingtonians. With gas prices themselves fluctuating so much, she said people won’t really notice the added tax. According to Clibborn, the state would be better off with revenue collected from the tax.
“I think maybe a little gas tax spent on getting these people out of their cars and getting them to work quicker wouldn’t be a bad investment,” she said.
Another concern raised was the cost the mandatory apprenticeship program wages on state projects.
For example, the state auditor’s office recently presented its audit on ferry-vessel procurements by Washington State Ferries, citing the apprenticeship program as one of the cost-drivers. The apprenticeship program requires that 15 percent of the labor for public works projects be accomplished by those enrolled in state-approved apprenticeship programs.
According to Dave Myers of State Building Trades, the apprenticeship program is actually used to deviate from the prevailing rate on public projects. While Orcutt does not take issue with the intention of the apprenticeship act, he does believe that the mandatory provision needs to be removed from the law.
“Right now, if you’re required to use apprenticeship labor, then a journeyman has to stay at home. And that’s not fair to the journeyman,” he asserted.
Orcutt said the apprenticeship requirement is just a small piece of the vast swath of issues that need to be addressed in transportation reform, such as the costs of environmental mitigation and the amount of time Washington bonds on projects.
The revenue plan is also anticipated to create and sustain about 56,000 jobs during its 10-year run, including construction jobs and positions in ancillary industries.
“It’s not just about hard hats," Clibborn said. "It’s also a great package for those jobs that show up tomorrow because we will have connected the rest of the state.”
The Freedom Foundation's England said that justifying an increase in taxes for the benefit of job creation is just special-interest politics at work.
“The point of government spending on infrastructure is to create infrastructure, not to create jobs,” he said. “The idea that we should tax the people of Washington state more in order to create jobs or enhance the wages of a few people… that’s classic, special-interest politics. It’s not good policy.”
Following a press conference about the revenue package Wednesday, Clibborn filed House Bill 1954, the Connecting Washington revenue package. The bill awaits assignment to committee for consideration