Chris Cargill Eastern Washington Office DirectorA Washington Policy Center

Current transportation policy in Washington state perhaps might be best summed up by a recent tweet from the Department of Transportation. Last fall, the DOT told morning drivers traveling southbound from Everett to Seattle to simply go back to bed.

The Cascade Conference in Leavenworth featured transportation panelists including State Representative Ed Orcutt, State Senator Steve Litzow, Chris Cargill of the Washington Policy Center and Bruce Agnew of Cascadia. They agreed many important projects are contained in a transportation package currently being debated before the state legislature. But when drivers see continued problems with mega projects like the Seattle tunnel Bertha mess, they want to know reforms are also built into the process.

Currently, Washington drivers pay 37.5-cents per gallon in state gas taxes. If the current gas tax packages being discussed are approved, that number could go up to 49-cents per gallon.

Washington Policy CenterĀ  the state’s leading public policy research organization – has compiled five policy recommendations that lawmakers should include in any legislation that is funded by a tax increase, to ensure any new transportation bill improves mobility and serves the public interest. Some of these reform ideas were shared and discussed at the Cascade Conference.

First, taxes and fees paid by drivers should not subsidize other modes of transportation. Gas taxes are protected by the 18th Amendment to the state constitution, which limits the use of gas tax revenue exclusively to roads and highways, benefiting the driving public who pays the tax. Raising transportation-related fees, raising the sales tax on the sale of vehicles and using roadway tolls, all to subsidize other travel modes are examples of how this practice is unfair and siphons revenue paid by drivers that should instead fund roads that reduce traffic congestion and improve safety. All transportation taxes and fees paid by drivers should be used for highway purposes only, while alternative travel modes should be funded by their own users, which reduces the public subsidy, or through local options that apply to the general public, like sales taxes.

Second, do not create a state-level tax or fee to fund local transit agencies. Public transit is a local function with its own tax base and the state’s role should be limited to granting local tax authority, not creating a new state level funding source. There are 31 public transit agencies in Washington and they collected $2.05 billion in total revenues in 2010. To put this in perspective, in 2010 the state collected about the same amount ($2.09 billion) from the three major revenue categories (taxes, fees and miscellaneous) that fund the state’s entire transportation budget.

Third, stop diverting existing transportation taxes and fees to pay for non-highway purposes. Each year, drivers pay about $204 million in various transportation taxes and fees that state officials then divert and spend on non-highway purposes. Annually, this amount is equivalent to about seven cents per gallon in the state gas tax rate. These other projects may be important, but they should have their own funding sources, particularly paid by the user-group who benefits from the program or service.

Fourth, expand capacity, fix chokepoints and do not restrict new resources to just maintaining the existing system. Over the past 30 years, highway demand in the Seattle area has increased 128%, yet lane capacity in that same time span has increased only 72%. The congestion isn’t just a Puget Sound problem it’s a statewide issue. Eastern Washington depends on a free flow of traffic to get its products into and out of port. When lanes are clogged, the state’s economy suffers. If drivers are going to pay more in higher transportation taxes and fees, it should be in exchange not only for projects that maintain the current system, but also for projects that reduce traffic congestion.

Finally, reduce unnatural cost drivers that make transportation projects more expensive. Artificial costs are from policies created by government officials that inflate expenses on public works projects. These policies are implemented for reasons that are unrelated to actually building a project. These unnatural cost drivers include prevailing wage rules and the state charging itself sales taxes on state transportation projects.A Studies show that imposing federal prevailing wage rules on transportation projects unnecessarily increases labor costs by 22% and boosts total project costs by about 10%. On the sales tax reform, the practice could come to an end under a Senate proposal. That could mean millions of dollars would stop being diverted away from transportation projects every year.