Saturday, February 27, 2021
Feb. 27, 2021

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Transportation taxes hot issue in governor’s race

The Columbian

OLYMPIA (AP) — Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna says Washington will need to ask voters to support a tax package to fund the state’s multi-billion dollar transportation needs, but his Democratic counterpart, Jay Inslee, isn’t ready to support any specific financing plan.

McKenna, the state’s attorney general, said that “in the next couple of years,” voters will need to consider a tax package to address the state’s transportation system.

“I don’t know what will be in it yet, it’s too early to say,” McKenna told The Associated Press. “But when it comes to transportation, we’ve always relied on voter-approved revenues to preserve, maintain and improve transportation infrastructure.”

Inslee, a former congressman, wouldn’t say whether he would support sending voters a transportation tax package, saying that much of whatever decision was made would be “dependent upon economic conditions and the rate of recovery of the state economy.”

“I’m not proposing any financing package. I am not proposing any specific method of financing,” he said, but acknowledged that “at some point, our state will to have to figure out some way to finance these mega projects.”

His uncertainty over a plan comes in spite of top Democrats, including Gov. Chris Gregoire, saying major funding is needed for transportation.

A task force last year determined that the state needs billions of dollars of transportation spending over the next decade, and McKenna said there are economic concerns if the state fails to address the needs.

“Transportation infrastructure is one of those areas where you have to keep up,” McKenna said “It’s very detrimental for the economy and job creation if you don’t.”

Voters last approved a gas tax in 2005, but the state is seeing less money from the tax as people drive less and cars become more fuel efficient. Gas tax revenue, which accounts for about two-thirds of the state’s funding of transportation funding when federal gas taxes are included, is projected to fall by more than $5 billion by 2023, according to a report released in December by the Connecting Washington Task Force.

The task force, which comprises people representing business, local government, labor, and environmental groups, warned that without additional money, the state Department of Transportation “cannot preserve the state’s highways and bridges and maintain ferry service at current levels.”

The task force noted that “the number of vehicle miles traveled each year in Washington is projected to reach 60 billion by 2020; annual freight volumes are expected to triple by 2035; and the number of passengers using transit across the state is expected to increase; and transit ridership in the central Puget Sound region alone is expected to grow by 90 percent by 2040.”

The task force said that while $50 billion would be needed to address all of the state’s transportation needs, it recommended $21 billion over the next 10 years “to preserve the transportation system and make strategic investments in the corridors that hold the key to job creation and economic growth.”

When asked specifically whether there needs to be an increase in the gas tax, McKenna said that it would need to be “a combination of a number of sources.”

“I just don’t know what the mix is going to be at this point,” he said, noting that ultimately the Legislature has to approve any plan that would go to the voters.

“Because the revenue sources are not indexed for inflation, you have to go back to voters periodically, if only to keep up with inflation, not to mention other needs,” he said.

Inslee said that in the coming weeks, he would be discussing his ideas on expanding freight mobility access to the state’s ports. He also expressed a concern about the state of the ferry system, saying: “It’s probably right now one of the weakest parts of our system and in the most fragile condition.”

On the issue of tolling, Inslee wouldn’t state a position, but said “I don’t think any of those methods of financing can be taken off the table.”

McKenna said tolls helped build many of the state’s existing transportation facilities and will be necessary to rebuild those same sites, such as the 520 Bridge.

“User fees, in the form of tolls, will be in the mix for certain projects, no question about it,” McKenna said.