The task force appointed by Gov. Chris Gregoire in July to study a 10-year investment and funding plan for Washington state's transportation system continues its labors. Progress has appeared slow, but interest groups and advocates have no shortage of ideas to urge the panel along.
The group has had a series of meetings, most recently on Tuesday (Nov. 29). The final meeting will take place on Dec. 12, after which the task force will prepare a report for presentation to the Legislature and the public. The Legislature is expected to send the resulting “transportation package” on to the voters for decision.
The Connecting Washington group's 31 members include Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) secretary Paula Hammond, State Transportation Commission chair Richard Ford, the chairs and ranking minority members of the Senate and House transportation committees, and representatives of county governments, city governments, ports, and numerous other interested parties, mostly from the private sector.
In terms of results, the task force in some respects resembles the deficit-reduction supercommittee dominating headlines from the other Washington: will it pinpoint preferred solutions, or merely leave the difficult decisions to the Legislature?
Although the governor's July press release on the task force appointments said that the group would “review statewide transportation needs, recommend the most promising projects for investment and identify potential revenue sources,” gubernatorial spokesman Scott Whiteaker offered few specifics on what the task force has been deliberating. The governor, in his view, was “pretty clear” about the expectation level. “The goal of the task force is not to produce a list of specific projects. The goal is to discuss the transportation system as a whole and what needs to be done to address its needs, and how to do so.”
Of particular interest at the Nov. 29 meeting was the presentation of a survey of citizen attitudes on transportation. The survey, conducted for the Washington State Transportation Commission by consultant EMC Research, found among other things that “even though most residents are not convinced that the [transportation system’s] immediate need is critical, a strong majority are still willing to consider raising ‘some transportation taxes and fees.’ However, only 3 of the 9 specific revenue sources tested — electric vehicle fee, emissions fee, and tolling — receive majority support as ways to fund increased transportation investment.”
The survey also found that “increased state funding for transit and passenger rail has strong support in most of the state,” and that “tolling has majority support across the state — including Variable Tolls and Express Toll Lanes — and a majority favor using toll revenue to fund improvements within a travel corridor rather than just on the specific facility.”
Later in the meeting, a PowerPoint by the consulting firm Cedar River Group listed bullet points laying out revenue options. These included “tax on auto [insurance] premiums” and “index fuel tax” — meaning a linkage between fuel taxes and inflation — in addition to “more tolling.” The last rubric encompassed such possibilities as high-occupancy tolling lanes, an extension to bridge tolling, and tolling levied within a geographic area in response to congestion.
Discussion of revenues and target projects, Whiteaker said, will continue at the group's final session. “All of this is really leading up to a point where the group solidifies principles of revenue and investment,” he said after the meeting.
A blog post from the Washington Policy Center shortly after the meeting noted that "the survey was conducted online and most certainly suffers from a self selection bias. In fact, some of the results are 180 degrees apart from other recent polls with similar questions."
Pointing to the possible difficulites for "policymakers who want a transportation package in 2012 during a presidential election year," the center's Michael Ennis wrote that "given the current economic climate and combined with the Governor’s new statewide sales tax proposal for general government (probably with a vote in April), a transportation tax package in November now seems less likely."
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