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State seeks ways to pay for transportation

Highway 520.

Highway 520 in Bellevue at evening rush hour. Credit: WSDOT

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.”

EMC Research could not be immediately reached for comment on Ennis’ allegations.

The context for the task force consists largely of the 2003 nickel gas-tax increase, and the Transportation Partnership Act of 2005, which bumped the gas tax a further 9.5 percent. Those two packages funded 421 transportation projects, according to remarks by Holland at the task force’s initial meeting this summer.

Bruce Agnew, director of Seattle’s Cascadia Center for Regional Development, which is not on the task force, looked back on those measures as examples worth adhering to. In both cases, “the Legislature laid out the projects. I think that’s how they’ll get the support they need [this time around].”

A quick survey of interest groups provided a sampling of the sort of projects that might be funded this time, but when interviewed before the Tuesday meeting, many involved with the process or observing it wanted to talk more about how step one in the process, getting the money, would unfold.

“We need a broad spectrum of funding sources,” said Janet Ray, assistant vice president for corporate affairs at AAA Washington, a task force member. “AAA is willing to chat about a variety of funding mechanisms. … There needs to be a firm nexus between the source and the use [of revenue].” She mentioned tolling and “possibly indexing the gas tax … so there would be some sort of automatic inflater” along the line of the cost-of-living adjustments made, for example, in social security payments.

Given the economy, she conceded, “the sky isn’t the limit, [but] the state has very specific needs.”

Also enjoying a seat at the task force’s table is the Transportation Choices Coalition (TCC). Its policy director, Carrie Dolwick, responded succinctly to the question of what her group would like to see come out of the deliberations: “Fix it first… more transit … healthy, liveable communities,” she said, repeating what in fact are the “principles,” as she called them, of the Transportation for Washington campaign. TCC and FutureWise, another Seattle-based, environmentally focused organization, are leading that effort.

Dolwick named five Puget Sound region transit agencies that are maxed out on their local taxing authority, limited by statute to a .9 percent sales tax increment. “The state needs to provide more local options, less regressive options,” she opined. She noted TCC’s support for a bill that died in the last legislative session, and that would have authorized a local motor vehicle excise tax, a vehicle license fee based on vehicle miles traveled (VMT), and a local sales tax on gasoline, to bolster transit funding.

“The gas tax is no longer a reliable source,” she said. “We’re hoping the task force puts everything on the table.”

That table is far too small to accommodate all the interest groups that might be happy to sit around it. Those in the background include the Bicycle Alliance of Washington, which has also signed on to the Transportation for Washington campaign. The alliance’s state policy director, Blake Trask, declined to take any position on revenue issues — “there are a lot of tools out there,” he said simply — but pointed to the “complete streets” infrastructure improvements that his group advocates as a means of saving dollars. “They’re cheaper to build. Creating bike networks is really cost-effective. And ultimately they last longer.”

Dave Hoogerwerf of Whidbey Island, who co-chairs the statutory Ferry Advisory Committee Executive Council and has testified before the task force, urged, “a sustainable and long-term method of funding the ferries.” Using the Mukilteo ferry terminal and its possible replacement as an example, he also saw a need for a more multimodal way of thinking as a priority for the task force . “There’s very poor coordination between Sound Transit, Community Transit, the park-and-ride and the ferries. … They [modal managers] don’t have a real good way to talk with each other. They kind of cross in the dark sometimes.”

Agnew, who has himself decried the balkanization of Puget Sound region transit, did not see much hope for a task force recommendation on the interagency  coordination question. He nevertheless urged the panel to provide impetus to the legislative process by moving beyond generalities in its recommendations, on both the revenue and spending side of the equation. “They need to be as specific as possible about projects. How do you replace the gas tax?” he asked rhetorically, pointing to the decline in gas tax revenues wrought by better automotive fuel efficiencies, among other factors.

“I am in favor of raising the gas taxes now and phasing in regional tolling on corridors over the next ten years,” he said. He also spoke of a need to liberalize the state’s legislation on public-private partnerships (PPPs), a possibility which Rep. Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island), chair of the House Transportation Committee and a key member of the task force, addressed in an e-mail interview.

“We have a PPP study underway at the JTC [the legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee],” but, she added, the PPP idea “is not a part of Connecting Washington since it will have a long period of education and then legislative changes before we can seriously look at it.” Nor did she see the regional coordination issue as a task force agenda item. “We will have announced criteria to choose projects,” she said of the contents of the panel’s final report. “We should have principles for revenue choices … That includes things like barrel fees, MVET, gas tax, weight fees, but not VMT (vehicle miles traveled). The VMT [as a basis for vehicle use fees] is not something I would want to see done state by state. National standards should be set first. This is a 10-year plan so it will be small and focused.”

Clibborn said the timing of a ballot question on the Legislature’s ultimate package hinges on some uncertainties. “Our goal would be the fall of 2012, [but] that may change depending on whether the general fund might need an initiative of its own. I guess we don’t want to step on each other’s toes.”

One part of the reckoning, of course, is the possibility that voters will give the thumbs-down to new taxation, user fees, tolls, and any other new government access to the citizen’s wallet.

Washington’s premier opponent of new taxes, Tim Eyman, told Crosscut that, among other factors, the two-thirds requirement for legislative enactment of new taxes, which a 2010 ballot initiative he sponsored has enforced, will make it “inevitable that this will go on the ballot.”

“There’s just simply no way that the voters are going to give them [transportation package proponents] a blank check,” said Eyman. “They need to think long and hard over what kind of taxpayer protections they’re going to put into their package.”  He referred, for example, to a safeguard against payments earmarked for one project being diverted towards other projects.

Another 2010 initiative, which would have established an income tax on high-earners, “went down in flames because that money could have gone into anything they wanted. They [voters] said no to two cents on a can of pop! And they certainly reinstated the two-thirds majority for raising taxes by the widest margin we’ve ever had [in a ballot initiative].”

New-taxation backers, Eyman said, will be “skating on the thinnest of ice. They have to put their last best offer out there right out of the box. They have to say, ‘Look at these phenomenal things you’re going to get.’ ”

Editor’s note: The writer has done work for the Cascadia Center for Regional Development.

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