Washington State Gas Tax Plan Calls for Hike of 4 Cents

Business, labor and environmental leaders asked the Legislature on Monday to boost the state gas tax by 10 cents a gallon to raise at least $8 billion for transportation projects over the next decade.

SEATTLE — Business, labor and environmental leaders asked the Legislature on Monday to boost the state gas tax by 10 cents a gallon to raise at least $8 billion for transportation projects over the next decade.

While that request was dead on arrival, Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen (D-Camano Island) said she is putting together a smaller tax package that would increase the gas tax by 4 cents a gallon and introduce a new vehicle weight fee on cars and small trucks.

"They say 10 cents, but they forget how hard it was to get 5 cents," said Haugen, chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

It was only two years ago that lawmakers approved a nickel increase in the gas tax, which pushed the state portion of that tax to 28 cents a gallon. Legislators also raised the sales tax on vehicles and boosted trucking fees by 15 percent to produce a total of $4.2 billion for highway, ferry, transit and rail projects through 2013.

That wasn't enough, said Dale Stedman, chairman of the Washington Transportation Commission, a citizen panel that develops policy for the Transportation Department.

"That 5 cents caught up to inflation," he said. But it doesn't provide enough money to pay for big-ticket transportation projects such as the estimated $4.1 billion replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct in downtown Seattle or a $3 billion bridge across Lake Washington to replace the existing Highway 520 structure.

The commission has put forth an array of taxing options, including a 10-cent gas tax hike, that would raise $11.5 billion over the next decade.

The private-sector plea for a 10-cent gas tax hike came from the Transportation Working Group, a coalition that includes The Boeing Co., Microsoft, the Washington State Labor Council, the environmentalist group 1000 Friends of Washington and other businesses and professional associations.

The state needs at least another $8 billion to maintain the momentum of the last gas tax increase, said Al Ralston, a Boeing lobbyist and a co-chairman of the working group.

Raising the gas tax by 5 cents this year and 5 cents next year would raise almost $3.6 billion over the next decade. The balance would come from increases in the license-tab and weight fees and tolls on the Highway 520 bridge, the viaduct and other highways. Haugen said she plans to produce an alternative tax proposal toward the end of the 105-day legislative session, which is scheduled to end April 24. Details are still being worked out, but her proposal would include a 2-cent hike in the gas tax this year and an equal bump next year.

"There aren't the votes for a 10-cent gas tax here (in the Legislature)," she said.

But somehow the state has to come up with $3 billion to $3.5 billion for the two mega-projects in King County and hope to get the rest from the federal government and taxpayers in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, she said.

Of the $4.2 billion that will be raised from the last 5-cent increase, only $56 million has been earmarked for the Highway 520 bridge project and $177 million was set aside for the viaduct. The three-county Regional Transportation Investment District was supposed to ask voters to raise local taxes for an additional $12 billion, but district officials have been reluctant to put a tax hike on the ballot the past two years. They're afraid voters will reject it.

It will be difficult to persuade state lawmakers to approve more spending on transportation projects when they might have to slash funding for human service programs to close a projected $2.2 billion shortfall in the general fund budget, Haugen said.

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