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In Our View: A Vision For State’s Roads

Financing a key issue as commission works on 20-year transportation plan

The Columbian
Published: September 16, 2014, 5:00pm

Another 20 years, apparently, won’t bring enough technological advances to have us soaring around with jet packs or using our personal flying machines to go on some errands. Yet while the future envisioned by the forward-thinking animation of “The Jetsons” will need to wait, the state of Washington is engaging in some planning for future transportation needs.

The state transportation commission is in the process of updating its 20-year plan, devising Washington Transportation Plan 2035 and attempting to discern future needs for roads, mass transportation and, perhaps most important, financing. Details of the early draft can be found at wtp2035.com, and the public is encouraged to submit comments through Sept. 25. The plan will be adopted in December and submitted to Gov. Jay Inslee and the Legislature in January.

“We’re really talking about the transportation system for the generation coming up,” Paul Parker, deputy director of the commission, told Columbian reporter Eric Florip. While that vision will help inform all kinds of future decisions, one of the biggest questions is how to pay for projects.

Washington, as with most states, has watched its gas-tax revenue diminish in value over the years. While the state’s tax of 37.5 cents per gallon is among the highest in the nation, the amount does not automatically adjust for inflation, and more and more residents are using vehicles with improved fuel efficiency. Because of that, several states are considering charging users a mileage tax — either a flat fee or a per-mile charge. As the draft plan says, “The commission recommends that the state continue to evaluate and plan for a possible transition from the gas tax to a road usage charge.”

The problem is that no consensus exists for how to enhance or replace the gas tax. Congress recently faced a similar problem as the federal Highway Trust Fund, supported by the federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon, neared insolvency. Lawmakers, as they are prone to doing, managed to “solve” the problem by providing no real solutions, instead providing $10.8 billion in infrastructure funding through “pension smoothing,” which the Washington Post referred to as “an egregious budgetary gimmick.” In short, it allows companies to temporarily delay payments to defined pension plans, raising tax revenues in the short term but decreasing them down the road.

The Washington Transportation Plan 2035 does not create the same immediate needs as presented by the Highway Trust Fund, but it does raise similar questions. Fuel taxes are the largest source of state transportation funding, and meeting the needs of both the present and the future will require adjustments in how the state pays for projects. We hope planners and the Legislature will be more fiscally responsible than Congress in providing stable funding.

The state’s 20-year plan, which is updated every five years, will provide a vision for how transportation will address issues for preservation, safety, mobility, environment, stewardship, and economic vitality. Each of those categories is crucial, and each of those is intertwined. Economic vitality, for example, is dependent upon preserving prior transportation investments and upon improved mobility as the population grows and density increases.

Those are the kind of issues that are facing the transportation commission as it looks to the future. WTP 2035 won’t be finalizing plans for a new bridge across the Columbia River, but — who knows? — it might be laying the groundwork for a Jetson-like future in transportation.

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