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Higher gas tax looks likely

It looks like a rise in the gas tax is inevitable this year.

Recently released House and Senate transportation plans both include a gas tax increase over the next few years that is expected to help pay for millions of dollars in traffic congestion alleviation.

A House Democrats plan that includes an 8-cent gas tax increase went to the Senate last Friday. The House plan provides that a gas tax increase would require voter approval.

On Monday, Senate Democrats approved their version of a transportation plan that includes a 9-cent gas tax increase —without voter approval.

Rep. Maryann Mitchell (R-30th District) of Federal Way said she would consider voter approval of a gas tax increase a victory.

But the Senate Transportation Committee chairwoman, Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen (D-10th District), said Senate Democrats oppose sending the issue to the voters. She cited the $5 million price tag to run a special election as the reason.

A conference committee of senators and representatives will convene to work out a compromise on the two versions of the transportation plan. That’s generally where the real struggle comes in, as members from both chambers negotiate on a final version.

Once both sides agree, the plan will be sent back to the House and Senate for a final vote. If either chamber fails to pass it, it’s back to the drawing board for further revisions.

The House transportation plan includes:

• $578 million to add six lanes to Interstate 5 between Seatac and Federal Way and connect it to State Route 509;

• $3.7 billion for congestion relief and road safety work;

• $765 million in transit, rail and other forms of alternative transportation;

• $333 million for local road projects; and

• $148 million for commercial transportation.

Under the House plan, the first proposed 4-cent gas tax increase would occur Oct. 1, followed by another 4-cent increase in 2003.

The plan also includes a .4 percent sales tax increase on new and used cars that would go into effect in October, followed by a second .4 percent increase in October 2003.

Senate Democrats offered a 10-year, $8.2 billion plan that allocates $2.6 billion for regional “mega” projects, including upgrades to Interstate 5, and $747 million for high-occupancy vehicle lanes to I-5 and State Route 167.

The Senate plan also includes:

•$414 million for park and ride lots, commute trip reduction grants, special needs transit and vanpools;

•$289 million to help cities and counties improve local congestion; and

•$125 million for statewide safety improvements.

In the Senate’s plan, the 9-cent gas tax increase would be phased in over three years, beginning Oct. 1. Their plan includes a 1 percent sales tax on new and used vehicles and a 3-cent surcharge on diesel fuel.

The most dramatic increase out of both chambers is proposed for truck weight fees. The House Democrat plan includes a 20 percent increase in the fees; –– the first 10 percent increase in October, followed by another 10 percent in 2003.

Senate Democrats proposed a 40 percent truck fee increase that would be phased in over two years, beginning Oct. 1.

Haugen said the trucking industry should pay its “fair share” of road construction and improvement costs because trucks are one of the biggest causes of wear and tear on the roads.

Mitchell, the minority leader on the House Transportation Budget and Policy Committee, said House Republicans might accept an across-the-board, 1-cent sales tax increase. But she doubts that voters would “stand for us to keep raising the gas tax.”

Sen. Tracey Eide (R-30th District) of Federal Way called this year’s budget process “ugly,” especially considering lay-offs and the recession.

“I’m fighting tooth and nail to see we don’t have tax increases,” she said. “We can’t do tax increases at this time.”

Staff writer Erica Jahn can be reached at 925-5565 and ejahn@fedwaymirror.com

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