by State Rep. Ed Orcutt
Transportation funding is one of the most difficult-to-solve issues in Olympia. Most people agree we need to improve our roads and other aspects of our transportation infrastructure, but there is significant disagreement on how and when to pay for it.
The arguments in favor of more investment in transportation hardly need repeating: congestion relief for commuters, easier transport of goods for businesses, safer roads and bridges, and better maintenance of our infrastructure, etc. But talking about the benefits is the easy part.
While the public generally supports the idea of transportation improvements, taxpayers are much less receptive to tax-increase proposals. People’s resistance to more taxes isn’t just a case of I want more, but I don’t want to pay for it.Tthey are genuinely concerned about problems at the state transportation department (WSDOT) and skeptical that new dollars would be used well.
You can hardly blame them. Practically every week we’re confronted with news of the ongoing problems with Bertha. We’ve heard story after story of serious problems in the state ferry system about which Seattle’s KING-TV did a Waste on the Water series. It’s pretty tough, perhaps even impossible, to convince people they should pay almost 12 cents more tax per gallon of gas plus higher registration fees in the midst of all this.
Before they can support a gas-tax hike, taxpayers need proof that their money won’t be wasted. As candidate for governor Jay Inslee said during his 2012 campaign, the right time [for a transportation tax package] is when we gain the trust of Washingtonians. Now, that is not a calendar date it’s a date of what we need to do, which is to build people’s confidence and trust in the state government.
I don’t think we’ve done a good enough job of regaining people’s trust to justify sticking them with higher gas taxes and registration fees. We need to show, convincingly, that things have improved.
On the legislative side, I support cost-saving reforms that would, among other things, keep the sales tax revenues collected from transportation projects in the transportation budget (currently they go into the general fund), and change costly environmental and labor requirements for road projects to save time and money.
Some reforms can only come from the inside they can’t be legislated. Taxpayers need to see that WSDOT is consistently and reliably cleaning up its act. I can say from working with people at WSDOT that they are improving the department’s work product. But it’s the general public that must be convinced, and I’m doubtful there has been enough done to convince them. It’s easy to see why they would be reluctant to support a gas-tax hike the size of what’s currently being proposed.
Additionally, people want to know their tax dollars would be spent on local projects that would help their communities not just poured into Puget Sound. Nobody begrudges Seattle getting significant funding. That’s only natural due to its size and importance to the economy, but there must be a greater balance of more economic development in other areas of the state.
I am also concerned about how effective the freight mobility projects will be in the Puget Sound area. Will population growth just re-clog those routes with commuters, leaving freight in the same traffic as today while paying higher taxes and fees?
In most of my district, the 20th, we have some of the highest unemployment rates in the state. People cannot afford another large tax increase when so many are unemployed or under-employed. Nor can seniors living on fixed incomes. It’s too much for them to afford.
Some House Republicans want to support the transportation package because of the benefits to their districts: meaningful congestion relief, more capacity, etc. I certainly understand the serious transportation problems in suburban and urban districts.
But, for successful, long-term investments in our transportation infrastructure to succeed, the two key issues of reforms and public trust cannot be ignored. They must be addressed, or the people of Washington will not consent to higher taxes. And if we don’t get those reforms with this tax package, taxpayers will wait 10 years or more for the next chance to get the reforms they deserve.
-Orcutt, R-Kalama, represents the 20thA Legislative District in the state House of Representatives. He is the ranking Republican on the House Transportation Committee.