Rep. Andrew Barkis: How to pay for better roads and ferry service without raising the gas tax

Our state transportation system is facing serious challenges. Old roads. Failing bridges. Unreliable ferry service. Dilapidated railways. Inefficient public transportation systems. These problems must be addressed.      

So, how did we get here?

For decades, the transportation budget has relied primarily on driver-related fees — including the state gas tax, vehicle registration fees, and tolls — to pay for all transportation modes and needs without assistance from the state general fund (operating budget). Our state has expected drivers to pay for a transportation system that includes many aspects unrelated to drivers. It’s a funding model that is not fair, equitable or resilient.

Since 2003, our state has enacted three transportation packages that increased the state gas tax by a collective 26.4 cents per gallon and raised vehicle weight fees. This left Washington with one of the highest state gas taxes — 49.4 cents — in the nation. We were told these tax-and-spend packages would generate $18.3 billion in new revenue over 28 years. However, they have produced far less. Also, there were — and continue to be — major cost overruns and considerable delays on projects. These outcomes represent broken promises.

Another problem: While these packages included new project lists, unfortunately they did not provide sufficient funding for the preservation and maintenance of existing infrastructure. Our state is now facing the consequences of this inaction with a backlog of more than $1 billion a year in unfunded transportation needs.

It’s clear the status quo is not working. Washingtonians deserve better results from their transportation leaders and tax dollars.

Accountability starts with the governor, who is responsible for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). The role of the part-time Legislature is to pass laws and appropriate funds for programs and services. It’s the full-time job of the governor, state agency leaders, and state employees to administer policies and build infrastructure efficiently.  

Our state must also address its structural funding problem. Transportation revenues have plateaued and are expected to be stagnant. State gas-tax revenues are declining because vehicles are more fuel efficient, electric cars are more popular and fewer people are commuting because they are working from home.

It’s time to reimagine how our state transportation system is funded. Republicans in the state House of Representatives have introduced real solutions to address the problems. The transportation plan is based on the premise that our state needs should be a priority and supported by the state general fund.  

Here’s how it would work. First, no more state gas-tax increases. In addition to being a diminishing revenue stream, many people and employers cannot afford to pay more at the pump. Keep in mind state gas prices are expected to increase when two new policies passed by Democrats, the low-carbon fuel standard and a cap-and-trade system, are implemented.   

While the transportation budget is struggling, the operating budget is robust. Lawmakers will enter the 2022 legislative session with a four-year budget surplus projected to be $8.8 billion — in addition to $2.2 billion in reserves and $1.2 billion in unspent federal stimulus funds. Unlike transportation revenues, state sales, property and business-and-occupation tax collections have been resilient. 

One House Republican bill, the Reprioritizing Existing Appropriations for Longevity (REAL) Act, would shift funding for removal of fish-passage barriers ($714 million), multimodal programs ($226 million) and Amtrak ($80 million) from the transportation budget to the operating budget. The Legislature could do this without jeopardizing funding for other state priorities.

Another measure would redirect revenue from the state sales tax paid on motor vehicles to fund the preservation and maintenance of existing infrastructure. This would shift more than $1 billion a year and address the backlog noted above.

Additional proposals would: transfer sales tax paid on transportation projects to the transportation budget; create a program at WSDOT to implement rural safety lane departure improvements; explore a shift of the Safe Routes to School Program to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction; and direct the executive branch to address barriers to recruitment for Washington State Ferries in future collective bargaining agreements.  

This plan would create a sustainable transportation funding model and redirect $3.2 billion from the state general fund to transportation needs beginning in the 2025-27 budget cycle — without raising taxes on anyone. Most important, it would begin to fix our state transportation system and preserve critical infrastructure for generations to come.

House Republicans will be advocating for these real solutions when the 2022 legislative session begins on Jan. 10.

As published in The Seattle Times

State Representative Andrew Barkis, 2nd Legislative District
427A Legislative Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
(360) 786-7824 | Toll-free: (800) 562-6000