Tuesday, July 27, 2021
July 27, 2021

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In Our View: Proposed 18-cent gas tax hike worth considering

The Columbian
Published:

A proposal to fund transportation projects throughout the state comes with a lightning bolt’s worth of sticker shock. But before reflexively opposing the idea, Clark County residents should consider the alternatives.

House Democrats last week unveiled a proposal to earmark $1 billion for a replacement Interstate 5 Bridge. A total of $6.7 billion is proposed for transportation projects, but the I-5 Bridge is the only project specifically mentioned.

Ah, you might have noticed that we buried the lead: The plan is to raise the state gas tax by 18 cents a gallon and institute a new fee on carbon emissions to pay for a 16-year, $25.8 billion package. The gas tax would be phased in over two years and tied to inflation after that.

An 18-cent increase to the gas tax is certain to have many residents reaching for the smelling salts. Washington has the nation’s third-highest gas tax at 49.4 cents per gallon; the federal gas tax is 18.4 cents. That means motorists already are paying more than $10 in taxes if they put 15 gallons of gas in their vehicle.

(As an aside, there is a desperate need to increase the federal gas tax for the first time since 1993. But that is a discussion for another time.)

Raising taxes at any time is enough to make taxpayers angry. Trying it in the middle of a pandemic that has hammered the economy is sure to leave those taxpayers apoplectic.

Nobody likes to pay higher taxes, but the important thing is to weigh the costs and benefits. In this case, the benefits would be enormous — and cost-effective — for Clark County residents.

It is clear that we need a replacement for the I-5 Bridge. We also need additional crossings between Washington and Oregon, but the I-5 Bridge has been deemed a project of statewide significance and can garner support from lawmakers. The crossing is essential to the economy of the entire West Coast, serving as a crucial conduit for a roadway that runs unabated from Canada to Mexico.

Paying for Washington’s share of a new bridge through a statewide gas tax means that residents in Seattle, Poulsbo and Leavenworth would be contributing. So would out-of-state visitors who stop for a fill-up.

In addition, every dollar provided by the state will reduce the portion of the bridge that is funded with tolls or local taxes. A replacement bridge will be costly for Southwest Washington residents; anything to lessen the burden is welcome.

That does not make the gas tax an easy sell — even to residents in Southwest Washington who depend on the bridge. The Seattle Times reports that the proposal, including the carbon fee, could result in motorists paying nearly $1 per gallon in taxes.

“We are really committed to moving a transportation package and getting it to the governor’s desk for signing,” House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said. “I think this moves the ball down the field well.”

Instead, it could result in a fumble for lawmakers. With the state facing a revenue shortfall of more than $3 billion between now and mid-2023 because of the pandemic, and with residents and businesses needing relief from that pandemic, funding for transportation likely will be viewed by many as a want rather than a need.

But there is a need. Economic recovery from the pandemic will be lengthy; anything that helps expedite a replacement bridge — a project that will take a decade to complete — is important for Washington’s future. Taxpayers should be aware of that — once they get over the shock.

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