Seattle Courant

Olympia: Gas Tax Revenue Down, Tolls and $4.3 Billion in New Transportation Spending

By Lydia Sprague
March 27, 2009 03:03PM

"Gas tax is the most unreliable tax there is," said Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, chair of the Transportation Committee. "We don't know what the fuel of the future is, but I doubt it’ll be petroleum."

The budget has taken a hit because state residents are driving less, and when they do, lawmakers said they are using more fuel-efficient cars. This translates to less gas being purchased, and fewer taxes paid.

"With cars becoming more fuel efficient and people driving less when gas prices spike, the state is going to end up in a place where we only have enough to cover operating expenses, maintenance and debt service," Haugen said.

There are bills in the House and Senate right now that address fuel-efficient and hybrid vehicles, alternative energy and climate change. All of which will effect transportation funding, Haugen said.

Despite the drying up of funds, the proposed budget includes $4.3 billion in new projects, enough to fund more than 400 projects, Haugen said. The priority projects are those that will stimulate the economy by creating jobs.

Tolling appears to be the preferred solution among lawmakers to pay for new projects. Legislators, who were pleased by the success of tolls on the Tacoma Narrow Bridge, expect to have tolls on 520 and the Viaduct. There is even discussion over whether the state should institute early tolling on 520, to help pay for the project in advance.

Included in this budget is a study for the Joint Transportation committee to develop ways to fund transportation systems in the future. Another idea that has been batted around is taxing drivers on the number of miles driven. Lawmakers are unsure of how that would work, and whether it would help in an economy where people are driving less.

But in terms of big projects, Haugen said she is glad there has been a decision made on the Viaduct, and hopes it starts to move forward quickly.

"I hope the people building these megaprojects make decisions and move forward, because the legislature's only going to have so much patience," Haugen said.

While the state is going ahead with the higher profile projects, lawmakers plan to delay some that are seen as less urgent.

"We're moving forward on important projects, but unfortunately, we also need to delay some projects," said Sen. Chris Marr, D-Spokane. "We've prioritized our project list to maintain momentum for projects that we know we can finish and will deliver a tangible benefit to drivers, and we've delayed 31 projects that won't be finished until we identify new revenues."

Projects that have been delayed include bridges that are deemed structurally sound and safe, guardrail refits and park and ride locations.

The ferry system is once again a priority in this budget. Along with plans to purchase four new 64-car ferries and five new 144-car ferries the budget includes provisions to develop a reporting system to record the cost of delivering service. Contrary to previous statements by Gov. Christine Gregoire, Haugen said there won’t be cuts in ferry service.