News

Higher gas tax still low in support

By ERICA HALL

The Mirror

King County Councilman Dwight Pelz wants to ask county voters to approve a gas tax increase this November to help pay for a backlog of transportation improvement projects, but fellow Councilman Pete von Reichbauer said he’ won’t support the proposal until he sees a more regional plan.

In his proposal, Pelz referenced Seattle’s $500 million maintenance backlog for streets, sidewalks, bridges and arterials and blamed voter initiatives 695 and 776 for slashing the revenue sources to pay for much-needed improvements. King County has lost about $55 million since the statewide initiatives passed, he said.

Pelz, who represents parts of south Seattle, Tukwila and Renton and recently announced his candidacy for the Seattle City Council, is recommending raising the gas tax 2.8 cents in King County.

But von Reichbauer, who represents the county’s south end, including Federal Way, said he won’t vote for the proposal and doesn’t think a majority of his colleagues will, either.

“I’m not supporting this until there’s a more regional approach,” he said, adding he wants a “tri-county, rather than an arbitrary” plan.

Pelz couldn’t be reached for comment.

The state gas tax is 28 cents, up from 23 cents before the Legislature passed the nickel gas tax in 2003, and the federal portion of the tax is 18 cents. A 2.8-cent increase would make the federal, state and county gas tax total 48.8 cents per gallon for people living in King County.

The price of regular unleaded gas in the Seattle area was $2.037 a gallon Monday afternoon, according to the American Automobile Association’s daily report. The price of regular unleaded in Tacoma was $1.948 a gallon.

While King County residents generally agree that transportation projects are important, many are less inclined to want to pay more taxes to fund them –– particularly when those projects are concentrated in areas where they don’t drive.

Last year, the Regional Transportation Investment District executive board decided against sending a transportation package to the voters after a survey indicated many people weren’t interested in paying more taxes and the package didn’t have a very good chance of passing.

Instead, the County Council put two advisory measures on last November’s ballot, asking voters whether they wanted a transportation package in November 2005 and, if so, how they wanted to pay for it. About 67 percent of voters rejected having a transportation improvement proposal in 2005.

But the advisory measure on how to pay for it was less clear and mostly unenthusiastic. About 26 percent of voters said they would prefer an excise tax on vehicle value to fund transportation planning, despite the passage of voter initiatives replacing the motor vehicle excise tax (car tabs) with a flat $30 fee. A general sales tax increase to pay for transportation funding was second-most popular at 20.6 percent, followed by a gas tax increase at 20.4 percent. A flat vehicle tax was second-least popular at 16.7 percent, and a tax on annual vehicle miles driven came in last at 16.4 percent.

Ultimately, county and transportation officials were left where they started: Shortly after the election, von Reichbauer said many state and local officials were frustrated because there was still no clear direction from taxpayers on how to fund transportation in the state.

Still, Washington’s funding travails aren’t unique. The state of Oregon has long had difficulty getting voter support for tax increases.

In Oregon, drivers pay $27 a year to register their vehicles. The state portion of the gas tax is 24 cents and the federal portion is 18 cents. Multnomah and Washington counties, near Portland, also have an additional gas tax of 3 cents and 1 cent per gallon, respectively. A person living in the city of Portland pays $27 a year to register his or her vehicle and 45 cents a gallon in federal, state and county gas taxes.

Oregon hasn’t had an increase in the gas tax since 1993, said Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) spokesman Jay Remy. It’s not that it hasn’t been suggested, it just never makes it through the state’s Legislature.

“The gas tax hasn’t gone anywhere in over 10 years,” Remy said. “It’s a nationwide phenomenon. Gas tax is not keeping up with the cost of the projects.”

In response, the Legislature in 2003 approved the creation of the Office of Innovative Partnerships and Alternative Funding, which formed last April. The agency is responsible for finding new ideas to keep up with transportation improvements in Oregon.

The legislation creating the office gives ODOT the authority to enter into contractual public-private partnerships with private businesses and other government agencies. ODOT issued requests for proposals earlier this year and awarded bids for five projects. Because the program just got started, there isn’t any data to show how it’s working.

Jim Whitty, an ODOTunding manager, said ODOT designs the projects to completion and then sends out requests for proposals. “Whoever gets the low bid gets the project, and that’s how it’s done,” he said.

Eventually, officials would like to see the private sector take over most of the design work, with ODOT only doing about 30 percent of the design.

Road construction ultimately might not be cheaper in the private sector, but Whitty said there are efficiencies there, like the ability to use non-traditional, innovative approaches and to work on things concurrently rather than sequentially. “At least, that’s the theory,” Whitty said. “We’ll find out.”

The partnerships and funding office is also responsible for Oregon’s mileage fee pilot project, which Whitty said will one day replace the state gas tax. As vehicles become more fuel-efficient, especially hybrid cars, people won’t have to purchase as much gas. That’s good news for the environment, he said, but it doesn’t bode well for transportation funding.

The mileage fee project charges people a tax per mile rather than per gallon of gas. The total tax is calculated at the service station and the driver pays when he or she gases up. A similar idea was the least popular on King County’s advisory ballot last November.

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565, ehall@fedwaymirror.com

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