Senate expected to tackle gas tax plan

This story was published Tuesday, April 5th, 2005, Tri-City Herald

By Chris Mulick, Herald Olympia bureau

OLYMPIA -- The state Senate is expected to take up a plan today that would increase the state's gas tax by 15 cents over 12 years, providing $57 million for the Highway 12 improvement project.

In conjunction with new vehicle weight fees and other fees, the plan would generate $9.1 billion for highways and an array of other transportation projects over 16 years.

But it figures to be a tough sell.

"It's certainly going to take a lot of courage for people to do this," said Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, a Camano Island Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

The plan would include raising the state's 28-cent gas tax by 3 cents this year, 2 cents next year and by a penny per year for the 10 years that follow.

New weight fees would be added as well, costing motorists an extra $5 a year for a typical sedan, $15 for a pickup and $25 for the heaviest sport utility vehicles.

There also would be increases in various fees for identification cards, learner's permits, agricultural permits and license applications.

The Legislature raised the state's gas tax from 23 cents to 28 cents just two years ago, acknowledging all the while that it would only make modest progress in fixing Washington's transportation problems.

The problem with the package introduced Monday is purely political.

Though the gas tax increase would be phased in over time, that may not soften the blow for motorists envisioning paying 15 cents more per gallon at the pump.

"I'm concerned about the perception more than the actual tax," said Sen. Mike Hewitt, a Walla Walla Republican who said he's leaning toward voting for the plan. "People are going to go ballistic."

Of the $9.1 billion that would be raised, about $4.6 billion would be spent on improvements to Interstate 405, the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the floating bridge over Lake Washington -- all in Puget Sound. But some of that funding also is contingent upon Puget Sound voters agreeing to chip in extra money that will be needed to finish those projects.

The package contains no major projects in the Tri-Cities. The last gas tax increase provided the last of the money needed for the reconstruction and expansion of the Highway 240 bridge over the Yakima River in Richland.

"We're pretty much taken care of for now," said Rep. Shirley Hankins, a Richland Republican who sits on the House Transportation Committee.

"I think this is too much money," said Sen. Jerome Delvin, R-Richland. "I would consider it if it had more projects for our district."

The package does include $57 million for the estimated $190 million project to widen Highway 12 from Walla Walla to the Tri-Cities. Money already has been secured to widen it from Burbank to Wallula Junction.

The new money would be used to widen the highway at the other end for a 10-mile stretch between Walla Walla and McDonald Road.

It also would pay for a $20 million interchange at the highway's junction with Highway 124 at Burbank, taking out the only traffic light between Walla Walla and Seattle.

"This would be a really important milestone," said Jim Kuntz, director of the Port of Walla Walla.