New Bridges, New Taxes

Washington State Senator Dan Swecker has proposed raising the Washington Gas Tax by a penny per gallon per year for the next five years, and continuing for a total of twenty years, in order to pay for some new highway projects in Washington. The bill is SB 6083. Doesn't seem like much at first, but it adds up:

His proposal would generate $12 billion over the next two decades, with $4.6 billion earmarked for local projects and $7.4 billion available for state and regional highway projects.

At the end of the run the gas tax would have been increased five cents a gallon after a five cent per gallon increase just two years ago.

I drove across the Columbia River from Washington in Oregon when I commute to work, so I am definitely sensitive to the need to improve that particular commute. There are some road problems in Oregon that routinely back up into Washington. I have to leave home around 5:30am in order to make my 38 mile commute in 45 minutes. If I leave later the time increase. When I head home it can take over an hour, two at the worst.

Many other improvements are covered by the bill. What's not clear to me is whether this bill would also fund fixing the serious problems on the Oregon side of the bridge. I'm especially sensitive to that since I pay Oregon a 9% income tax even though I live in Washington. No unilateral solution on either side of the river will fix this commute problem. I work from home when I can, but as a manager I should really show my face at the office from time to time.

A gas consumption tax seems an awful lot like a use fee—which I prefer to general taxes—but the raising of the tax by a penny per year is akin to stories of “boiling the frog.”—if you throw a frog in boiling water they'll jump right out again, but if you put a frog in warm water and heat it slowly you can boil the frog without him escaping.

Washington's gas tax is already 28 cents a gallon. At the end of this bill it will be 33 cents a gallon. That's a pretty severe increase. At least it's not described in terms of a percentage of the total, which would greatly increase the tax as the price of oil fluctuates.

“We need a long-term and stable funding plan that allows us to address our transportation needs without being a financial burden on drivers,” he said. “This plan qualifies on both counts.”

Five cents a gallon doesn't seem like much to most people, but I'm pretty sure most people don't know how much gas they use each year or have a budget that describes how much they spend on it.

Swecker's plan also adopts a pay-as-you-go approach, using cash for projects rather than selling bonds.

This, however, I like. Paying for projects with current money instead of future money at least better ensures that they will get done.

Josh Poulson

Posted Thursday, Mar 10 2005 08:28 AM

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